Tuesday, February 20, 2024

8. Stopover Tokyo: A Mr. Moto Adventure by John P. Marquand

This was a thin novel that I should have finished in a few days.  Unfortunately, it was so boring and overly-written and predictable, that I had to force myself to get to the end, with my mom telling me to just skip to the end and stop complaining.  She's wild.  I see this is the last Mr. Moto adventure and Marquand died at only 60 a few years later.  I guess he was trying to get out of the game himself, because the theme is of the spy in the business who allows himself to become personally involved and thus compromises himself.

The story, as far as there is one, is centered around all-American 50s spy, Jack Rhyce, going after the "commies".  The red menace here is insanely vague, akin to the I Was a Communist for the FBI radio series.  There seem to be a lot of very real-seeming Americans abroad who have somehow been indoctrinated and now work for the other side, but what they actually do that is so bad is barely explained. Only at the end, do we learn that they plan to assassinate a liberal Japanese politician and blame it on the Americans.

But really nothing much happens in this book except Jack meets a beautiful female spy and they have endless conversations where they play their roles and then complain about playing their roles until I guess they fall in love and decide to leave the business when this job is over.  Of course, she gets killed (and worse).  Mr. Moto is on the sidelines being suspicious and then assisting.  The only element of interest is the background on Big Ben, the big commie who was snubbed at a Southern college so decided to destroy America, I guess.  There was some hints at interesting class issues, but otherwise this book was a snoozer, too caught up in its time to say anything interesting about it, yet not committing to the insanity of that time to at least have fun.

I read that this was an outlier of the Mr. Moto books as the others were pre-WWII and not dealing with the cold war, but I didn't love the first one so despite the beautiful paperback designs, I am done with Mr. Moto.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

7. Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold (#8 in the Vorkosigan saga) + Labyrinth novella

I don't have this edition
Mirror Dance takes the series in a new direction by giving Miles' clone-brother Mark a full narrative and development of his character.  I assume he will show up in other stories in various levels of import.  The tone here, or perhaps the intensity, is really ramped up as well with some horrific torture and more sex.

The story follows directly on from Brothers in Arms, where we first meet Mark and learn about his creation as a secret clone of Miles, trained and indoctrinated to be used as a sabotage device by Komorran rebels.  The story in Mirror Dance starts with him impersonating Miles and tricking a subset of his crew of Dendarii mercenaries to go on a mission to Jackson's Whole, the immoral cloning world, to liberate a bunch of clones from the clone-creche where he was raised (their destiny is to have their brains removed and their bodies used by their elderly owners).  The raid goes wrong and the real Miles in hot pursuit, tries to rescue them and he himself gets killed.

Mark makes it out and his plan is revealed to both the Dendarii mercenaries and Barrayar's ImpSec and Miles' family.  The problem is that one of the medics stuck Miles body in a cryochamber and shipped it off planet when they were under fire (this was kind of a cool idea, that there was an automated shipping center all handled by machines that did its job despite a firefight going on around them).  The first half of the book is Mark returning to Barrayar and being accepted as a Vorkosigan but with much guilt and trepidation on both sides.  I found this section a bit trying, as Mark is really unlikable, whiny and insecure.  It makes sense as he is basically a profound victim of abuse, but it grated on me.

Fortunately, it gets much better as Mark starts to figure himself out and assists with the search for missing Miles and the narrative switches over to Miles himself who finds himself as a sort of prisoner/patient in a very high-end clinic manned (womanned) by clones.  There is lots of excitement as Miles figures out what is going on and the various narratives converge.  The end result is that a blow is struck against the evil Houses of Jackson's Whole and Mark learns who he really is, what he is good at and what he wants to do. It's all a bit accelerated but that is the fun of these books.  Furthermore, Miles now has a real rival for his own hyper-success.  We shall see how their relationships develop.

I found this book quite interesting, as it is a strange blend of Georgette Heyer (namechecked by Anne McCaffrey on the back cover) filtered through good old nerdy sci fi space opera and spiced up with some real nastiness.  Mark's torture session with Baron Ryoval is about as dark and nasty as you can get psychologically and physically and yet somehow lightened up so that it is all kind of fun reading (especially the outcome).  It's quite a trick Bujold plays.  She also deals with a lot of themes of abuse and consent while yet still having oddly inappropriate behaviours (Miles and Mark are often kissing women where maybe they shouldn't be) which I guess is a function of the late 90s when they were written.

Addendum:  Labyrinth (novella)

The one real issue with the Vorkosigan saga is the editions that Baen puts out.  The order is super confusing and often makes no sense.  Part of it may be a function of when Bujold published her books, but still it really requires way too much work to figure out what book you are supposed to read next.  When I started Mirror Dance, there is a cool new character Taura, a genetically-engineered wolf/human super soldier with reference to her having a romantic connection with Miles as well as to Jackson's Whole.  But she came out of nowhere.  Turns out her backstory is in this novella Labyrinth, which I could read in either a collection called Borders of Infinity (which has framing devices of him talking with Illyan but otherwise two stories that I have already read) and the one I did pick up (in at least a normal paperback size for once instead of those oversized volumes that scream nerd and take up half my bag on the plane) called Miles, Mutants & Microbes. This book has Falling Free, a story that takes place 200 years before Miles is born and Diplomatic Immunity which is the 16th book in Miles' narrative!  I guess it is thematically built around quaddies, the species of two sets of hands and no legs that is introduced in Labyrinth, but still.

Anyhow, this story was really cool!  Miles and the Dendarii mercenaries are sent on a mission to pick up a top geneticist from Jackson's Whole who wants to secretly defect.  However, the scientist won't leave unless they also take his viral research, which he injected into a failed super soldier experiment, which had recently been sold to evil Baron Ryoval.  So Miles and the crew are sent to find this creature, destroy it and cut out a chunk of its calf with the genomes.  I really wish I had read this before Mirror Dance, because the surprise is quite fun.  Also, you really get to hate Baron Ryoval here, so his comeuppance in Mirror Dance would have been that much more satisfying.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

6. The Tribe that Lost its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

I mean look at this beauty!
Well this was a massive disappointment.  I loved the Cruel Sea and over the years I had several other of Monsarrat's books that I've discovered.  I also have a certain affection for him having also migrated to Quebec and was a minor literary name here back in the day.  I also had found Richer than all his Tribe, the sequel to this book first and had been looking for this one for a few years and finally found this beautiful Pan edition.  So I was quite excited to read these two.

My legion of readers will know that I am quite capable of enjoying a good adventure even if I don't always agree with the politics behind them.  Most of these post-war manly British adventure guys were often quite conservative.  This book, though, was straight out racist and worse (well not really worse but it pissed me off more), couched the racism in some of the most extreme pax britannica ideology that I have possibly ever read.  Basically, if it wasn't for the British coming in and imposing some civilization on these savages in Pharamaul (the invented island nation of the west coast of Africa) and India, Burma, etc. they would be killing themselves and others and also not advancing their economy.  This argument is presented repeatedly throughout the narrative, so that even if I agreed with it, I would have found it annoying.  Monsarrat wrote this after leaving his posting in South Africa and I can only guess that he had a lot of resentment and was using this to burn it off.

What makes the racism and simplistic pro-colonialism thesis worse is that much of the book is a generally scathing critique, almost to the point of parody, of many of the institutions which make up the expat world in colonial countries.  The media is satirized ruthlessly, primarily in the form of a rabble-rousing British reporter for a leftist newspaper (owned by a lord, of course) who sets the whole thing off by quoting the returning king out of context.  There are also caricatures of the American journalist who is critical of everything British, the ex-soccer jock super racist South African and the presumably lesbian American photojournalists whose every shoot is to amplify the shocking.  Likewise, many of the Brits themselves working either in the ministry in London or locally on Pharamaul, especially the wives are broad caricatures.  And these caricatures, while broad, are thoroughly done and accurate.  Was Monsarrat so caught up in his ideology that he couldn't apply this same critical lens to the colonial structure itself, which is so obviously the cause of all the trouble.

The story has many characters.  The main "hero" is young David Bracken, who has just been posted to Gamate, the central village in Pharamaul.  He meets lovely secretary Nicole and their love is basically a done deal.  The main catalyst character is the tribal king to be, Dinnamaula, who is just returning from his education at Oxford, ambivalent about his role and his future.  A few off-the-cuff remarks by him, exploited by the newspaper man cause all the problems.  First, he says that he wants to modernize his people, which causes the British government to freak out.  Instead of sitting down with him and discussing how they can work together, the district officer barks at him like an unruly child.  He then says to the same reporter that he wants to marry a white woman, which really lights the fuse.  Everybody behaves stupidly with some idea that if only they are "firm" with the natives, with the opposition, that everything will calm down once the natives realize the errors of their ways.  Their firmness consists of basically taking Dinnamaula and putting him under house arrest, which makes things much worse.

What's so weird about this book is that all the things that actually happen are inherently critical of colonialism, yet Monsarrat keeps on arguing that the tribes are not ready to get out from under colonial rule.  It's like he's arguing against himself or at least the reality he created.  Where it really took a nose-dive, was the finale, where the lone white couple in the northern village are set upon and brutally gang-raped and tortured.  It is so over the top and insane and just nasty.  I hate books that use sexual violence to try and give weight to their story or thesis and this was one of the most grotesque and artificial that I have read in a while.  And then to make it even more insance, the denouement is that the hero and his pregnant wife get given that position in that same village and he is psyched about it!  WTF?!

Really beneath Monsarrat's other work, a true disappointment.  He wrote the sequel 10 years later, so I can only hope that his views had evolved somewhat and his simplistic patriotism mellowed.

It even has an awesome map!


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

5. Needles by William Deverell

I've been looking for this book for a while and I finally found it in a pretty appropriate place: the Pulp Fiction on Commercial.  He is a B.C./Vancouver writer after all.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), it is a first edition hardback and I paid a whopping $21 for it!  This was the book that started it all for Deverell, as it loudly proclaims on the cover.  He is quite a productive person, a journalist, editor then a lawyer and finally an author who also started the B.C. Civil Liberties Union in his spare time.  He lives on Pender Island now and probably has a sweet pad there.  What I find quite odd is that I never heard of him as an author or a local celebrity while we were on the Island (Vancouver, not Pender).  The literary scene in Canada is quite small and on the island even smaller (Margaret Atwood once stayed at a friend's dad's house and we found out about it because the news travelled up the town that she was swimming in the bay).  My mother had never heard of him when he's written a very popular series and won a Hammett.  I've got no explanation.

I discovered him myself thanks to Andrew Nette, who specifically recommended this book.  I forgot his exact words, but my memory of his portrayal was that it was quite gritty.  This set up some false expectations for me, because though this book has a great portrayal of seedy Vancouver in the 70s, it is far from gritty.  Rather, I liken it to that collection of really readable mystery/legal/thrillers that are almost over the top, along the lines of Ross Thomas and Carl Hiassen.  Right at the beginning, we are introduced to Vancouver drug kingpin Dr. Au, a pretty racist (though probably considered the opposite at the time) portrayal and a way over-the-top badguy.  He gets his sexual kicks by expertly torturing people (using a buffet of various orientalisms) and then slicing off their genitals before killing them.  That is not quite "gritty".  So I was a bit thrown off.

Once we got into the case and the main narrative, about hotshot lawyer and (recently backslid) heroin addict Foster Cobb who has the case to prosecute Au for the murder thrust upon him, the book gets quite enjoyable.  There isn't a lot of suspense here as the reader knows what actually happened.  The conflict is whether or not Cobb can maintain his skills while maintaining his addiction and the cops on his side can overcome Au's pressure on the witnesses and the corrupt mountie with whom he is working.  The court case has some exciting moments and there are lots of great little scenes in various parts of sketchy Vancouver that are also enjoyable.  The ending is also a bit silly, with a final action scene on the west coast of Vancouver island, but very beautiful.  And oh yeah, Cobb's other big conflict is that his marriage to his super hot, young ski pro wife is on the rocks and he has to decide whether or not he should get with his super hot, super smart also young Chinese-Canadian lawyer assistant in the case who is a hippy and smokes dope and throws herself at him.  It's all very much of his time, but nevertheless quite entertaining and you can see how the later books are worth following. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

4. The Japanese Girl by Winston Graham

This is a book of short stories that I picked up entirely on the basis of the cover design, a classic 1970s Fontana photo cover paperback.  These stories were not my usual jam, but almost all of them were very readable and kind of fun.  Graham writes with a rich yet easy prose.  The themes often involve chance encounters between men and women, relationships that get delayed or strained somehow with hints of the supernatural.  Many of the stories have very light twists at the end.  I've said before that I am not a big fan of short stories because I prefer a longer and more involved narrative.  Because of the exploration of consistent themes, this collection was somehow more satisfying than I expected, even if many of the individual stories were somewhat light or ended ambiguously.  

The only story that I didn't really like was the last one, "But for the Grace of God", which was about another Jesus who was a contemporary of the real Jesus.  I find Christianity super boring and I didn't really get what the point of this one was about.  Some of the highlights were the titular "The Japanese Girl" about a frustrated bank clerk who plans to steal from his bank, give it to his mistress and then do the time to get out to be with her.  They share a love of travelling and plan on taking the money and go around the world  when he gets out.  Things go wrong, of course, but not in the way you would expect.  I also enjoyed "The Basket Chair" about a wealthy director of a paranormal society with a heart condition convalescing at his niece's who encounters the paranormal for the first time.  It had such an obvious twist but somehow I was totally fooled.  Graham is a good writer.  "The Cornish Farm" was also a great little horror story about a couple who purchase a hobby farm and discover it has a nasty past. 

Graham is best known for his historical Poldark series, about which I know nothing.  I see he also wrote several thrillers, which I will definitely check out.  Hmm, actually I may have to read the Poldark series too.

Friday, January 12, 2024

3. Cold Steal by Alice Tilton

I think I must have found this in a Montreal free box, because it has a stamp inside that says "JM Albot, Robertsonville, Que, Canada" and I usually don't buy mapbacks unless it is an author I know, despite the temptation.  It is really beautiful.  It has three pages of guiding info at the beginning, which I did not read until after I had finished the book:  a "Persons this mystery is about-", a "What this mystery is about-" section and a "Wouldn't you like to know-".  I'm glad I didn't because I probably would not have wanted to read the book.

I did some reading on the author before I wrote this.  I usually do it after to be neutral, but this book was so different than anything I read or expected.  I guess it's supposed to be super funny, kind of a slapstick, Nick and Nora style mystery with aspirational elements.  I found it very difficult to read and not funny at all.  There is tons of dialogue where the main thread keeps getting interrupted by silly double entendres of others characters not letting the speaker finish their sentence and thus misunderstanding them.  I guess audiences of the time find it funny, but it fell very flat for me.

The plots, such as it is, starts out on a train.  Our protagonist, Leonidas Witherall, is returning to his newly built home that he has not yet seen.  He oversees a woman surreptitiously putting a package into a garbage can and then a whole lot of wackiness ensues, almost all of it taking place in his new home.  It centers around a mean wealthy woman who opposed the building of the home being found dead in the car of its new garage.  I'm so exhausted from forcing myself to get through this book and the plot is so convoluted and unresolved that it's not even worth making any more effort to write about.

I hope others in our modern times can enjoy these as I appreciate a prolific female author (she wrote a lot to survive the depression), but these are just not for me.  Well now I know.

Monday, January 08, 2024

2. Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

I discovered this book along with several others in this great article from Publisher's Weekly "10 Most Puzzling Impossible Crime Mysteries"  As I've said before, I am a very lazy mystery reader, preferring to be led along by the narrative but the books from this list have started to push me somewhat to try and figure out the mysteries myself.  Some people are really good at this (I remember reading about someone in Murder Ink who reads the first few chapters, then tries to guess it and then skips to the end; if they are wrong, they will then read the book, otherwise they don't bother!).  I'm still on the hunt for The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't figure out the main twist of this mystery, especially as it should be easier (spoilerish hint coming) in these more woke times.

The story started off in an infuriating way! Not in the sense that the book itself angered me but the actions of the characters pissed me off so much that I was all fuming in bed about it and it triggered adolescent revenge fantasies.  Faustina Cayle is a new art teacher in an elite all-girls school in Connecticut who is called in by the headmistress and fired after only a few weeks into her year-long contract.  The headmistress won't tell her why, only that her character isn't right, nor will she give her a reference. Despite paying her for the first 6 months, it's super fucked and actionable, but Cayle is shy and accommodating and doesn't want her own reputation ruined.  We soon sense that there is something going on with her reputation at the school by the behaviour of the girls, the maid who is supposed to clean her room and the other teachers.

It's not super spoiler ish to reveal what it is but if you are interested (and this is a good book), I'd recommended that you stop reading here.  One of the teachers, Grisela, is an educated and upper class European refugee (this is right after WWII) who is sympathetic and happens to be romantically linked to the New York state psychiatric coroner Dr. Basil Willing.  She writes to him and he sense something quite serious is a foot.  The deal is that Faustina seems to have a doppelganger.  The students and the maid have spotted her at the same time in two locations (or so close in time that it was physically impossible) and it has so spooked them that she becomes a pariah.  This is what pissed me off so much, the Yankee puritanism of the time where instead of helping her, they just ship her out.  Fucking puritans are so triggering!

It's very well-written and an easy page turner.  I enjoyed the rich depiction of the milieu of post-WWII New York and New England.  I also found it kind of scary at moments and even at one point got a bit freaked out thinking about it after reading it late at night.  It is one of those mysteries that has depth and several characters, but McCloy is skillful enough that the reader has no problem remembering them, their movations and characters.  So they mystery is quite hard but she does lay it all out for you in a fair and enjoyable way.  You can just read it or try and figure it out for yourself.

There was some digression in discussions between Grisela and Willing about the supernatural, which given how impossible the facts were made sense. I also think these ideas of spiritualism were somewhat in vogue at the time.  I found these somewhat distracting although interestingly, she never fully denies that there may be a spiritual element.

I would have loved to have found an original paperback, but I appreciated this reprint with a cool, illustrated cover.  McCloy is another great female author who has unfairly disappeared.  I found her book to be an interesting contrast with Mary Stewart's The Moon Spinners, written 15 years later.  Somehow, though the gender mores of McCloy's world are even more strict than Stewart's, she as an author comes off as less sexist.  You could make a similar comparison with Dorothy Hughes earlier books who was her contemporary.  I need to think it through more and this is also a potential undergrad thesis for somebody, a study and comparison of female authors and their relative internalized gender discrimination (or something).  In any case, McCloy is worth a look.