Wednesday, May 05, 2021

27. Madam, Will you Talk? by Mary Stewart

This book was half-maddening and half-quite enjoyable.  Fortunately, in that order.  I think I am starting to get a handle on my ambivalent feelings about Mary Stewart's work.  There are elements in her books that really bug me, mainly the way her main characters perceive and behave.  I was having trouble distinguishing how much of my annoyance was more due to the historical context of the time she was writing and how much was due to her own choices as a writer.  Her books, written mainly for women, I assume, but probably capturing some male readers at the time, take place in that really awkward period in British gender dynamics in the second half of the twentieth century.  Mary Stewart seems to handle this by constantly reinforcing their weakness internally. Her characters are actually kind of kickass in the way they behave.  It is in their internal narrative that they are constantly questioning themselves. It bugs me.  I still can't fully delineate if it is my own inherent sexism and general frustration with ambivalent characters (this annoyance applies to male characters who prevaricate as well; one just encounters it less in the kind of fiction I read) or if there is something inherent in Stewart's writing that makes it stand out for me.

Madam, Will you Talk? did help me to realize one thing that she does as a writer that is honestly worthy of criticism.  She writes in such a way that makes you assume you are dealing with a reliable narrator, but in the womanly worry internal monologue, she steers the reader deliberately in the wrong direction so that you perceive a character in the book erroneously.  It feels like cheating to me.  Specifically, in this book, she meets a man that she has been told is a murderer.  He is looking for his son and at this point, she believes that the son is hiding from the father.  However, she is clearly jumping to conclusions and the reader knows this.  Yet, Stewart paints her reaction as if he is a murderer. 

"I saw his eyes narrowing on me in a look that there was no mistaking. It was not imagination this time to see violent intentions there. If ever a man looked murder at anyone, Richard Byron looked it at me on that bright afternoon between the flaming beds of flowers in the garden of Nîmes."

Reading it again, it does sort of make sense in the context of what we learn later.  Still at the time, I was pretty sure Richard Byron was not going to be an actual bad buy.  The writing made me feel conflicted and unsure and not in a suspensful way but just in a confusing way.  I do think somebody smarter than me could analyze the sexual politics here, as the threat of violence is inherent in some weird way in their eventual loving relationship.  He bruises her wrist and these bruises keep coming up even after they have cleared up the confusion and realize they love each other.

And this was the really bizarre part. He is pursuing her and she is fleeing for the first big exciting chase in the book.  This goes on all over southern france and is quite fun.  When he does finally catch her for good, they realize they both had read the other wrong and are on the same side.  And then like two hours later, she is confessing that she is in love with him!  It's just bonkers.  Was it because back in the 50s you couldn't have sex before marriage, so if you were at all physically attracted to somebody, you had to fall in love right away so you could get it on?  Stewart does a good job of believing that the two could be attracted to each other after the mix-up.  It is actually a fairly effective and enjoyable romantic set-up but the speed of it is just dizzying.  Like maybe they can have a mix-up and antagonism that turns to attraction but can we take our time with it?  Just bizarre.  

As I said, I was quite annoyed with the first half and somewhat disengaged.  However, the second half delivered some real thrills and the plot backstory was rich and convincing.  I realize I haven't even got to the main plot in my zeal to do simplistic literary analysis.  Basically young and attractive widow Charity is on a vacation in France with her friend.  At an inn in Provence she meets a nice but nervous 13 year-old boy who is travelling with his stepmom.  Charity learns through the tourists gossip network at the inn that his dad was accused but acquitted of murdering his friend and that the wife (the stepmom) is on the run with the boy, fearful of murderous and maybe insane Richard Byron.  Charity befriends the boy and in trying to help him hide from his father uncovers a more complex plot.  

It is the second half where the plot begins to be revealed, the mystery lifted and true bad guys and good guys properly divided where we get some really good action.  Charity's previous husband was a fighter pilot and a really good driver and he taught her how to drive.  She gets to use her driving and fighting skills in a great scene where she bests and breaks down a nasty but incredibly handsome French conspirator.  Really fun stuff!  So ultimately redeemed and Mary Stewart stays on the list.  :)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

26. The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

When I found this book, I had to take it.  Years ago, somebody posted the cover art on Twitter and I snagged it for my cellphone background (insider tip: cover art without the type is perfect for cellphones because the top quarter is always left open).  I had this great image on my phone for quite a while so I thought I at least owed it to the artist and writer to the read the book upon which it was based.

I am quite glad I did. This is an interesting and smoothly-paced story that answers a classic speculative question in a serious and thoughtful (and subtly critical) way: what would happen if aliens arrived on earth?  In this case, they come as a giant rectangular slab that suddenly appears on a small river in rural Minnesota, smashing a bridge and the car of Jerry Conklin who was fishing under the bridge.  There are many characters and perspective shifts from the White House to a newsroom to the man in the street, though Conklin and his girlfriend (a reporter on said newsroom) also provide a more direct narrative through line.  The "visitor" doesn't do anything for a while.  And then it starts consuming trees.  Then more come and land all over America.  The rest of the book is us trying to figure out what the hell they are doing and how we can respond to them.  It is is not disimilar to Rendezvous with Rama, except the speculation takes place on earth and these things are still active.

I won't spoil anything specific, as much of the fun in this book is learning about what these things are doing.  Simak does a really good job of keeping the narrative going and giving us enough to speculate in a satisfying way.  There is no conclusive ending, but enough to make your own judgements about what will happen.  A clue is that at the very beginning, a racist barber is complaining about how the Native Americans are getting the rights back to a forest.  His ugly diatribe (and the fact that he is the only person killed by the visitors after he shoots one and receives a reactive jolt of energy that basically cooks him) and the town newspaper guys response does foreshadow a parallel with the arriving visitors.  Though they are much less aggressive than "the white man", they do seem to need to consume resources and are potentially offering very shiny gifts in return.  

I really enjoyed this book.  There is a lot of thinking about society and what alien visitors would mean to us, but it is woven more elegantly into the story than Simak's earlier works.  It's very readable and the speculation itself is quite well done. It leaves enough for you to think about after it is done and kind of wanting more but knowing that spelling it out in nerdy detail would ultimately be less satisfying.

I realized after I finished reading this that I had somehow conflated Simak with Richard Bester (whom I didn't love).  Now I realize that City is the only other Simak book I have read.  I was critical of that one, but it was very thought-provoking.  I am going to have to upgrade him in my head and maybe read other works of his.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

25. The Dead Don't Care by Jonathan Latimer

First of all, I want to give a shout out to The Paperback Warrior.  I am a particular fan of their podcast which has been consistently professional, informative and kind of fun.  If you are a fan of 20th century crime paperbacks, their site and podcast should be one of your go-to references.  They did a best of 2020 and co-host Tom* chose Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer as his favourite book that he had read that year.  I am still looking for it, but did find The Dead Don't Care by the same author at Dark Carnival. 

First of all, I really enjoyed Latimer's writing.  He has a nice sparse yet entertaining style, reminding me of Dashiell Hammett with a spritz of John D. Macdonald (though that maybe because this one took place in Florida). His descriptions of Florida and the beach were incredibly evocative, made me long for the hot sand.  He also has a lot of great drinking moments, both in the dialogue and the described actions.  They drink a lot, especially Crane, the main detective, who is a self-aware alcoholic.  There are also some great snippets of dry detective humour.  So a real pleasure to read.

There are two detectives here, Crane and O'Rourke, part of a larger company who has been hired by the trustee of a rich scion, Penn Essex, to protect the heir who has been receiving threatening letters.  They go to his waterfront mansion south of Miami and there live the high-life with Essex, his sister and their motley collection of guests.  Crane seems to have had a higher class upbringing than O'Rourke, though both seem to have the clothes for the situation.  The location, the characters and the various conflicts and things that go down are all very enjoyable.  I was really looking forward to how it all played out.

Unfortunately, the plot and to some degree the resolution, was a bit disappointing.  Tom's description of Solomon's Vineyard made it sound really hard-boiled.  This book definitely had some edge and you got a great sense of the darker side of life, both rich and poor.  The plot, however, was a more traditional whodunit, almost a "cozy" in the sense that you were driven to try and solve the mystery of who is sending the threatening letters (and then who is the kidnapper who snatched the sister).  I kind of figured it out early but it seemed too obvious.  The reveal was even done as a classic parlour presentation.  None of it was terrible, it just felt a bit like two genres colliding and the wrong genre for the style winning out.  Solomon's Vineyard will remain on my list as will Latimer as the writing style was so good.

One weird thing is that the back cover blurb of this No Exit Press edition gets the name of one of the characters wrong and is just erroneous as only one of them is the sidekick.  Quite sloppy!

The other detective is O'Rourke

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

24. Day of the Drones by A.M. Lightner

I can't remember what prompted me to take this book from the little outdoor book box where I found it.  I think it was the combo of Post-Apocalyptic and racial issues as a subject matter.  I was wary as well, though, since science fiction about race written in 1969 can be questionable. The cover also worried me that it was going to be psychedelic and lack coherence.

My apprehensions were quite erroneous. This was actually a very enjoyable, straightforward PA adventure with a cool setting and some simple but not wrong-headed thoughts about race.  It takes place in some distant future, several centuries after "The Disaster" when most of humanity (and most mammals) was wiped out.  The surviving humans live inland somewhere in Africa.  They are a civilized society, technologically primitive, but with some memory of the past.  They attribute the destruction of the world to white people (and to uncontrolled use of technology).  The protagonist is a bright young woman named Amhara who is sent to school with the potential to rise high in the society. Her childhood friend N'Gobi is as smart as her, but light-skinned.  Actually so light that it was only by the pleading of his mother and the other villagers that he wasn't killed as a baby.

With the support of sympathetic professors who value N'Gobi and Amhara's skill more than they respect the taboo of N'Gobi's whiteness, they form a team that is going to explore outside of their lands for the first time.  This trip is triggered by N'Gobi's discovery of a new kind of bird with a strange, knotted rope around it's leg that could only be done by somebody intelligent.  They have a solar helicopter that had been hidden away (this is a bit of a stretch, but in line with the rest of the book which doesn't fret about nerdy details so we can get on with the exploration).  The journey, which is cool in and of itself, finally discovers the birds on a small island off the English coast. There they do finally discover other people, a tribe of white people who have patterned their society around the giant bees that feed them.

It's a neat, tight little story. There is conflict but it is all done in a non-stressful way which I appreciated.  The racial politics may be a bit naive (there is one person on the expedition who is disgusted by N'Gobi but she learns to appreciate him as a human) which seems appropriate as the author is I am pretty sure white and definitely lived well (went to Vassar and ended up in NYC).  I much prefer a straightforward racism is bad and can be overcome if we work together message than some convoluted "exploration" that you tended to get in sci-fi and crime books that did deal with race from this period.  I also really dug the portrayal of the bee society.  It was a cool idea to think of primitive humans with no mammals who would become dependent on the insects around them.

Lightner was quite prolific in fiction and non-fiction and did some other YA and PA books.  Worth checking her out more.  Nice little find!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

23. Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

He gets his name on the cover, so I guess I also have to give a shoutout to story selector and introduction writer, Patrick McGrath, who I guess put together this New York Review of Books collection.  Daphne du Maurier is one of those authors with whose name I have been quite familiar while also basically being ignorant of what she actually did. This book was handed on to me by a friend who was doing a shelf purge.  I felt a bit burdened, but now am glad I read it as it is a nice introduction to du Maurier.  She is an excellent writer.  Although I am not a huge fan of short stories, her clear prose and subtle ability to change styles and perspectives is well demonstrated in all these stories.

The two well-known stories, because of the movies based on them are the titular "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds".  I didn't love the movie of Don't Look Now.  I don't know why, it just kind of bugged me. The death of the daughter was so horrific and sad that the rest of the movie couldn't surpass that feeling and the couple just seemed mostly annoying.  The story is tighter and the husband comes off much more as being an ignorant ass (and thus getting his ironic, "Appointment in Samarrah" type ending).  The Birds was simply exquisite.  A dark, tight story of survival in rural England, it feels very influenced by WWII and the blitz.  The movie takes the basic premise but completely relocates it.  Here we have much more of a straightforward and grim tale of apocalyptic survival.  Just excellent.

The other stories are all equally well-written and intriguing, but ultimately suffer for me from the lack of depth inherent in the short story. There is a really cool one where a woman comes out of an eye operation and everybody has a different animal head (The Blue Lenses).  Kiss me Again, Stranger is a nice woman as serial killer twist with a great but doomed young romance encounter.  

I will have to read one of her novels at some point.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

22. The Ants by Peter Tremayne

This was quite a nice find for a paperback collector and in beautiful condition.  It almost looked like it had never been read.  I am also a big fan of the killer ants concept (who isn't).  My all-time favourite old time radio show (and also a classic) is the William Conrad Escape episode "Leiningen Versus the Ants".  The ants as devouring adversary are a great antagonist in and of themselves, but they also engender creative solutions to fight them.  It's fun to think about.

Unfortunately, though The Ants is a competent even enjoyable book, the creative solutions are lacking. I strongly suspect that Tremayne either read the original short story that Leiningen Versus the Ants was based on or heard the radio play.  The setup (South American plantation) and several of the techniques (particularly the fire ditch) to fight the ants seem to be cribbed right from the story.

There are two protagonists here, Jane the anthropologist who returns to the Mato Grosso province to find her father and the tribe they lived with all completely disappeared and Hugo the bush pilot working for the largest plantation owner in the region.  His plane crashes and Jane rescues him.  Together, the two of them with the one native boy survivor make their way back to the plantation, where Xavier the owner, Lopez his foreman and Consuela his selfish and sexy wife are in their own little domestic conflict.  This group must first solve the mystery of the destruction and then when they learn it, fight the ants as well as their own internal conflicts.

As I said, if it were wholly original, I would say it's a pretty fun ride.  The ants are awesome in scale and the destruction they cause is quite fun and well-described, as is the stress when they start to threaten.  Tremayne does a good job of describing the tactile sensations of a lot of large ants, especially when they get squished.  It gets to you a bit.

There are, as usual, some minor missteps with the gender roles.  Jane lived for several years already in a remote village in Brazil, speaks Portuguese and Xingan and is an excellent and fast shot.  Yet as soon as there is danger, she faints.  Hugo is constantly sending her to the safe places.  It's this weird dance of yes she is a cool girl who can do stuff but oh she is also a woman so better not actually just make her the protagonist lest she stress the sensitive ego of the male reader.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

21. The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill

When I found this book in the bookbox in Little Italy, the back cover was missing and the front cover was almost ripped off.  Normally, that is too damaged for me to take, but this was a beautiful 1954 Pan edition with a really nice illustrated cover.  I'm glad I read it but I don't know if I will keep it.  Ethical and archival considerations come into play.I believe it is something of a classic, at least was quite popular when it was released not long after the war ended.  It's the straight-ahead story of the pilots and leaders of the 617 Squadron, a specialized super-heavy and accurate bomber team.  It has the best portrayal of British humble pluck and some pretty exciting bombing runs.  It is told in a documentary style, but the action scenes are none the less thrilling.  I have to admit that I didn't quite understand how the targetting was done by the lead planes, as there was some jargon and terms that were perhaps more widely used right after the war.  It is always crazy to me the men who flew in WWII.  They would fly a plane 10 hours just to get to a bombing run!  Think how hard that would be.

The cast of characters get a bit confusing but the ones that are highlighted are quite compelling.   He pays particular attention to Wing Commander Cheshire, a true eccentric of the British income-less landed gentry.  Brickhill seems to have known and talked with many of the people in the story and he fills it out with many little anecdotes and asides about their characters. 

There is one disturbing element in this book.  It smacks you in the face a few chapters in.  The squad leader's dog is named the n-word!  Just seeing it once is really shocking, bringing the entire good guy narrative into perspective.  You suddenly see that these personable lads are also the elites of a destructive, rapacious empire whose racism is so deep that they would name their dog the perjorative term for a peoplel they had subjugated.  There is a whole little sub-plot with the dog and the name comes up several times.  And spoiler alert, the dog is hit by a car and is killed just before the first big flight.  Reading that chapter created a real conflicting mix of emotions in me.  Imagine being a nerd of colour and reading this book and stumbling onto that word.  

So I'm left conflicted.  The book is too beat up for my library and I don't think I want it in there anyhow.  Do I repair the front cover and pass it on or should it be removed from circulation because of the use of that word and maybe it is just at the end of its life?