Friday, November 19, 2021

69. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I found this in the free shelf at the same time as I found The Inheritance Trilogy.  I chose to read the latter first because all three books were in one physical volume (and I could get a 3 for one on my 50 books count ;) ).  I didn't love The Inheritance Trilogy and it put me off of reading this one, even though everybody said it was way better.  I finally took the plunge and I am glad to say everybody was right.  The Fifth Season had all the good stuff that was in the Inheritance Trilogy (excellent worldbuilding, really cool powers and characters) and kept it at the character level, so you got almost all the good stuff.  The power levels get quite high here but the characters are always human and grounded so you can relate.

It takes place on some planet (perhaps ours) that is fundamentally tectonically unstable, with earthquakes, rifts, volcanoes and other fun stuff happening all the time, sometimes enough to destroy almost everything.  There are certain people with powers to control the earth's energy.  Despite and because of their powers, they are feared and loathed, usually killed when discovered or often sold to The Fulcrum a special school for them where they are disciplined and trained and then used as weapons/tools to protect the land from the earth.  There is a lot more going on that I won't get into here, entire histories of various peoples, other creatures and even giant crystal obelisks that hang in the sky.

The book is three narratives, following three different storylines that slowly weave together towards the end.  Like Anne Leckie, this trilogy deals with contemporary issues such as slavery and colonialism (what I endearingly call "woke sci-fi") and integrates them skillfully into the setting and plot, so that you are thoroughly entertained while subtly questioning our own reality.  This is what science fiction is supposed to do.

It's not perfect.  The Syen character has that "angry" trait that I see with a lot of authors where they lean on simplistic anger to add conflict to situations where it doesn't feel natural.  It starts to get annoying in the early and middle parts of the book, where she is always snapping and sarcastic even though anybody at that point would be more resigned and just live with the situation (of being with somebody they don't like).  So much emphasis is put on this anger that when the expected evolution comes (she learns to like and even love the guy), albeit quite novel and interesting, it's not very satisfying or convincing.

All that being said, I still walked to the bookstore and bought the second book so I can find out what will happen next.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

68. Sweet Death, Kind Death by Amanda Cross

Another free shelf find that I had hoped would be an easy 80s mystery read.  It ended up being that, but the first few chapters were a real slog.  The mystery takes place in an academic world and the book was written by an academic for academic-types to read.  There are quotes at the beginning of every chapter and the language is relativel dense, with fairly high vocab for a book of this type.  It takes a while for the situation and plot to coalesce and while we are getting there, there is a lot of discussion about the role of middle-aged women in society that comes in the form of witty, erudite banter between the characters.  I had a hard time getting through this first part.

The protagonist is a New York professor who I guess has a knack for also solving mysteries.  In this case, she is contacted by two men who are writing a biography of a feminist author and professor who killed herself at the lake of the private liberal arts college where she taught.  There was some suspicion that she was murdered, because though she had written and talked of death (including her own), none of her close friends felt it made any sense that she would have done it then.  So the detective/professor goes to Clare College (some conservative amalgam of Bard and one of the other new england women's colleges), ostensibly to head up a task force on whether or not they should have a gender studies program, but really to investigate.

The college set up is really fun.  Though a woman's college, the school is deeply conservative and pretty damned sexist.  Most of the other professors hated the victim because of her independence from the constraints of traditional roles for women.  This book was written in 1984.  I went to a liberal arts college a few years after that which was the peak of the wave of feminism that was the really suppressive anti-sex one.  I was generally supportive of that movement and understood broadly the reasons for its expression.  Reading this book, it really exposed how fucking awful even that late in the game, the patriarchal power structure was.  The arguments against the gender studies program sound so similar to the same bullshit we hear being trotted out in response to the Black Lives Matter movement or climate change.  People in unequal power making any convoluted argument no matter how illogical as long as they can find justification so they get to stay in unequal power.  

Ultimately, the mystery part got all a bit crammed up at the end.  It was kind of fun but we never really got to see the culprit enough to really hate them and thus didn't get much satisfaction at their comeuppance.  This milieu is not really my jam, so I probably won't read any more, but if this one is any indication, it is a well-written and enjoyable series for people who appreciate American academic cozies.

Friday, November 12, 2021

67. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

I had Cosby on my list but was not in a rush as he is so contemporary, I knew one of his books would come my way.  And indeed it did, as my mom passed his latest to me, including a great article about the author my dad had cut out.  I read the article after having finished the book.  Cosby has a great backstory and his own route to getting published is inspiring.  

He still had a day job at the time of the article, as the handyman at his wife's funeral parlor. The main character in Razorblade Tears is an ex-con who runs his own landscaping business. Cosby puts his knowledge to good use as yard tools and equipment feature heavily in the action. And there is a lot of action. It reminded me a lot of the Spenser books where he and Hawk have to go full commando.  It's a great set-up. Ike Randolph's gay son (whom he rejected due to his own homophobia) and his husband are brutally murdered and he and the husband's white trash dad (who also has his own roughneck past) pair up to get revenge.  They are a great buddy duo, both can fight and do crime and their banter is a mix of well-written repartee and heavier shit as they get to know and appreciate each other.  The bad guys are also a great mix.  He sets up a world that you don't want to end.  I'd love a series with these two.

It's well constructed with an excellent forward pace and fun writing.  I had one annoyance with a plot development where I felt the characters acted out of character and did something stupid (going to the burning house for those who have read it), but otherwise was thoroughly enjoying the ride.  Cosby does a genius trick here by putting forth a classic masculine badass revenge story yet wrapping it around today's social reality.  Homosexuality, homophobia and racism are big themes here, at times ever so slightly veering into the speechifying but otherwise essential elements to the narrative.  He proves that shit can be woke and badass.  The badass is really good, so that helps.  Just some great, creative fight scenes.

Very pleased to see this kind of book coming out today.

Monday, November 08, 2021

66. The Gotland Deal by N.J. Crisp

I found this while vacationing in the lovely and interesting Eastern Townships.  As all Canadians learn, this is where the United Empire Loyalists moved to after the American revolution and thus it has a multi-generational anglophone community.  I was hoping this history would lead to lots of excellent english language used bookstores, but alas I was only able to find one:  Black Cat Books in Lennoxville.  I took a daytrip down there and found it to be a really lovely little store with a nice selection, though not the treasure trove of mid-20th century genre fiction of which I had dreamed.  I still found a few little gems, including this one which I picked up purely on the lovely Penguin design.

It's a solid little thriller, with a setup that I particularily enjoy: the competent tough working urban detective who gets mixed up in politics and espionage that is supposedly out of his league.  I realize now there is a class element here as well, along with the classic appeal of the underdog story.  Sidney Kenyon is the said detective and though definitely on the side of order, also demonstrates a certain human sympathy for the criminals he catches.  The book begins with a seemingly open and closed murder case of a pimp (called a "ponce" here) who murders his girlfriend when he finds out she was selling her services on the side.  This is followed up by an irritating call where Kenyon has to humour an attractive, educate woman who is convinced she is being followed and that somebody broke into her nice apartment to search it.  Kenyon is very cynical at first, but is also attracted to her.  So against his better judgement, he starts digging and of course things get interesting.

It's written in a direct and economic style and keeps moving forward.  Near the end, when we start to get the big picture, it expands into large-scale international politics to a point that was a bit fantastical to me compared to the street-level investigation that went on before.  It never delivered the final bang of the working class cop taking it to the fancy boys at higher-level agencies.  Nevertheless, it was a solid, enjoyable read.



Thursday, November 04, 2021

65. The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

I found this beautiful first-printing hardcover (sadly without a slipcover, but check out the type and colour below) in the fecund free shelf on St-Viateur.  I had really dug the horror short stories of du Maurier and was hoping a book called The Parasites was also going to be a horror story.  Well it was pretty dark and disturbing but of the purely non-supernatural realm.  This is a well-written character study of three broken children of successful performers.  I'm not really sure what the point of it all was as two of them were hateful and the third maddeningly pathetic.  du Maurier is just such a good writer that it was easy to keep reading.  The locations and situations of pre and post-war Europe (mainly London and environs) were richly and entertainingly portrayed but god the people were such spoiled and self-centered shits.

Niall, Maria and Celia are raised by a famous dancer (mom) and a famous singer (mom).  Both are parents to Celia and one each is a parent to older Niall and Maria.  They are left to run wild as children, with the distant mom and the loving but distracted dad.  They grow up accordingly with each inheriting a strong talent (Maria for acting, Niall for piano and Celia for drawing) as well as a deep malaise and inability to live in the world in a happy, positive way.  The book is centered around Maria's aristocratic and old school husband finally getting sick of them (calling them parasites) which triggers reminiscences, sending the reader back in time so we see how they got that way.

It's mostly quite melancholy and kind of depressing.  There are some bright moments, such as when the family first goes to the manor of Maria's new husband (named hilariously "Coldhammer") and commit all these hilarious faux pas.  As I say, very well written, so if you like rich studies of broken, spoiled people, this will be for you.

 Postscript: did a bit of reading and see that The Parasites is considered a bit of an outlier in her work and is broadly autobiographical (she had a clinging actor father and a distant mother).  That makes a lot more sense as to the purpose of the book.





Friday, October 29, 2021

64. Dead Low Tide by John D. MacDonald

Dead Low Tide is the penultimate book in the list of non-Travis McGree JDM's recommended by the still missed Al Gorman.  I found them all in Vancouver many years ago and have been slowly working my way through them. I'm trying to take my time now that I am near the end, but felt vaguely dissatisfied after Holy Fire and needed some good hard-boiled manliness.  Dead Low Tide reads quickly and mostly enjoyably as all JDM books, but unfortunately was possibly one of the weakest so far.  It had several forced situations to drive the plotline that were real groaners and had a lot of excessive JDM moralizing.  I can't tell what he hates worse, greasy spoons or pornography, both of which got a multi-paragraph haranguing.

The narrator is Andy McClintock, office man for a Florida developer in the middle of building an ambitious suburb on a key.  His boss is a strong, bullheaded self-made man who has been giving McClintock the run-around about a promised promotion to do actual on-site work.  The boss's somewhat scrawny but also sexually alluring (of course) wife comes to McClintock and asks him to snoop around and try and find out what is wrong with her husband, as he has been suddenly distant.  McClintock refuses but does decide to confront his boss about the promised promotion. Instead of stalling, the boss gives it to him and reveals a weird fatalism in doing so.  Soon after, he commits suicide by shooting himself in the neck with McClintock's spear gun (that he finds later stolen from his garage).

So of course this leads to McClintock being accused of the murder (also having been spotted hanging out with the wife plus the new contract).  It looked promising but we had several of JDM's weird asides about love and female sexuality.  McClintock lives in a humble rented cabin and his neighbour is an attractive, huskily healthy midwestern divorcee.  They respect and like each other, had a brief fling, but decided mutually to keep things in the friend zone. There is a very abrupt "plot twist" that felt unfair to the reader (which I've never experienced with JDM before) that sort of makes their relationship a major plot line.  The bad guy turns out to be none of the characters established in the beginning, so there is no mystery for the reader to solve, though it appears to be set up as if there is.  And there is a very unrealistic escape that allows McClintock to be the hero even though that all doesn't really make sense.  It is somewhat redeemed by an incredible climax where he literally fishes the badguy off a boat.  That was fun, but leading up to it I was pretty disappointed.


SPOILER ALERT (for my own future reference):  The healthy midwestern girl gets murdered about halfway through the book, giving McClintock his revenge drive.  He realizes that he loved her after all, that she was the one under his nose all this time and now she is dead.  He does the detective work (and the details here are well done) to find the killer who is a wandering psychopath.  The cops catch him and to get him to confess suddenly reveal that McClintock's love interest is not dead after all.  They faked it the entire time to draw the killer out!  It's weak on several levels, because it implies the fat, narrow-minded police chief actually wanted McClintock's meddling, which just didn't ring true given all their previous interactions.  It also feels like a forced way to make a satisfying love triangle.  Then the psycho escapes and manages to evade a vast dragnet, double back and of course catch McClintock and his new love in a vulnerable position, which does lead the incredible fishing revenge moment (which I will paste as an image below).



JDM would not have been a fan of PornHub

I feel like he does a disservice to what is now a touchstone of American culture

 

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".