Sunday, August 28, 2005

29. Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard

Freaky Deaky book pictureMy girlfriend took this out of the library and I wanted to get another taste of Elmore Leonard. The only book of his I can remember reading is Mr. Majestyk, which I picked up for cheap right after seeing the movie with Charles Bronson (there's a great scene where the badguys shoot his watermelons).

It's quick reading, with many different characters revolving around each other in a moral morass of cons and backstabbing, with a thick strain of romance for the protagonist driving the whole thing forward. Some ex-radicals from the '60s decide to try to extort money from a rich friend of theirs who has become basically brain dead through excessive partying. He's like Ozzie and he has this ex-Black Panther as his manservant who is also scamming him. An explosives expert who just left his department and then gets suspended gets involved to help a woman who'd been sexually assaulted by the wasted millionaire. I think these are classic Elmore Leonard plots (think Get Shorty or Jackie Brown) and they are entertaining in their convolutions. They also make people look pretty morally fallible.

Ultimately, though, this one just didn't grab me. The style is not sparse enough to be really tough (like Richard Stark), though that's the milieu he's aiming for, nor is it wacky enough to be truly fun (like Carl Hiaasen). So it basically boils down to a small crime story with decently portrayed but not all that interesting characters. It was okay and I'd grab other Elmore Leonards if I was desperate, but I won't be picking up any more in the near future.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

28. Breakout by Richard Stark

Breakout book pictureRichard Stark is my favorite author. He is the pseudoym of Donald E. Westlake who has written all kinds of crime and mystery novels, including the screenplay for The Grifters. The Stark books were a series of caper novels, written in the early '60s and early '70s starring a tough, methodical and cold-blooded thief named Parker. They kicked ass. He wrote the last of the series "Butcher's Moon" in 1974 and it was a perfect ending to the series. For whatever reasons, he started writing Parker books again '97 and sadly they just weren't as good. The plots weren't as tight, Stark had trouble fitting Parker into the '90s and Parker just wasn't himself. He talked way too much, put on disguises, things like that. In the original series, there was no fooling around. It had lines like "Parker shot him." or "Parker hit him twice." or "Parker waited."

The basic structure of the Parker books is four parts. Part I Parker plans a job or gets involved in one. Part II we see the behaviour and personalities of some of the other characters, often involved tangentially or on the victim side of the job. Part III the job goes sour. Part IV Parker deals. There were some variations, and the overall story arc is really great, with Parker taking on the mob, but the real enjoyment of these books is a super-efficient character cleaning up the mess of life's screw-ups in order to save his own ass.

Anyways, I picked up the latest in the second iteration of Parker books, Breakout, at the new Bibliotheque Nationale here in Montreal. This time, Parker gets caught on a job and goes to a holding facility, where he decides to break out rather than wait for the cops to connect the identity he gave them to the real him and thus expose all the crime he's done over the years and finish his career for good. There is a pretty cool heist and the way things go sour are cool. It's all a bit implausible and it kind of lacks punch, but Westlake is such a good writer that he is always enjoyable to read. It's a quick and decent read, but I would only recommend it to completists. What I would recommend is you start reading the original Parker series, which starts with The Hunter (or Point Blank as the movie of it was called) and go from there, in order if possible. They will kick your ass.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

27. Dark Mirror by Diane Duane

Dark Mirror book pictureOkay, I just crossed a threshold to a higher levil of nerdiness. I just read a Star Trek novel, Next Generation at that. The author was recommended as one of the better of the series. I have nothing to compare it with, but Dark Mirror was entertaining and fun to read, but probably would appeal mainly to those who were familiar with the TV show. I watched the first few seasons of Next Generation and quite enjoyed it when it stayed on strategic and exploratory subjects. It started to get more and more soap-operaesque as the seasons went on and I dropped it.

The Dark Mirror crew deals with a parrallel, evil universe, the same one that the original Star Trek crew encountered (with Evil Mr. Spock, one of the most bad-ass concepts in the history of character development). This time, the evil universe has figured out how to pull things from our universe and they pull the good Enterprise into their universe in an attempt to take it over, send it back and infiltrate then conquer our universe.

Duane does a great job with the original characters and a pretty good job of developing the future history of the evil universe, where humans have conquered, destroyed or enslaved everything in the galaxy. Her portrayal of the evil counterparts is mixed. They were interesting, but not quite evil enough. The whole book is kind of G-rated, which is not inappropriate for the source material, but makes it difficult to portray real evil.

I think I may turn off this road now, but if I come upon some other Diane Duane star trek's for cheap, I may pick them up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

26. Flic Story by Roger Borniche

Flic Story book pictureThey have a giant used book sale at this Arena in Rosemount every year. I think most of the books are the ones the libraries are getting rid of. I picked this book up there, on a whim. It was a hardback missing the dust jacket, so pretty anonymous but the age and quality of the paper and binding caught my eye. It was written in 1973, originally in French, and is the true story of a french cop hunting down criminals in Paris in the period after the end of the Second World War. The author is the cop (flic is slang for cop in France) and he prefaces the book with a bit of bitterness, suggesting that all the books about crime are written from the criminals perspective and he wanted to show what it was like to be a cop.

The translation is a bit awkward, especially considering that a lot of the dialogue is in gangster jargon and french underworld sland. Also, the book moves forward jerkily, sometimes going to the past, sometimes changing perspectives (Borniche often narrates the criminals behaviour as if he were part of it, without any explanation of how he knows the things he knows. But once you get a quarter way through the book, the stories (and the main story, his attempt to collar France's enemy #1 of the period) really pick up momentum and those things stop bothering you. You also get the feeling that he really wrote this book on his own and his writing, though not the best, is honest and filled with real detail. He has a humble and sardonic voice, and though it is often marred by the translation, when he talks about trying to afford a new stove for his mistress (this means girlfriend in the context; he isn't married), it's endearing.

The french criminal scene of the '40s and '50s, at least according to this book, seems as cool as it is portrayed in movies like The Red Circle and Touchez Pas au Grisby! The gangsters (and the cops) are constantly stopping what they are doing to get something good to eat (and describing it in sophisticated detail), drinking wine, champagne and pastis (pernod mixed with water, turns all milky) and smoking cigars and black-market american cigarettes. They cops and robbers always seem to be hanging out in the same place. You get the feeling that Paris was a small place or that the culture was just very consistent.

I'm really glad I found this book. Besides being fun to read, filled with great heists, collars and characters, it also gave me a much stronger and more authentic sense of the french postwar criminal world. I'm also happy to discover they made a movie of it with Alain Delon.

Monday, August 15, 2005

25. Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Feersum Endjinn book pictureThis is another one of Banks' Culture novels, a collection which I've really loved. He is a great moralist, great in the sense that his books are powerfully moral without ever being preachy or getting in the way of the story. Feersum Endjinn concerns the earth far in the future. The technological and social situation is quite complex, almost too complex to describe here, but basically the future earth is in danger of "The Encroachment" a wave of black dust that may block out the sun and thus freeze the solar system. Instead of working together to address the problem, the leaders are fighting a civil war. Everyone lives in the ruins of giant statues and castles and have access to a virtual reality called the Crypt, all of which was left by a previous society. They don't know much about them, but suspect they have a way to fight the Encroachment. The book traces the paths of the various characters whose actions will impact the plot.

As usual, with the Culture books, there is awesome technology as well as really amazing descriptions and locations. His presentation of the Crypt as a kind of advanced internet in which people can exist for millenia as avatars (or copies) of themselves is thought-provoking and a reasonable guess as to the future of our own data net. So for sci-fi nerds, it's a great read. I think it may be a bit obscure if you're not familiar with Banks' style and the Culture books. For instance, there is a character who can only think and express himself phonetically and there are chapters and chapters written phonetically, which is tough at first (though once your brain is able to read it quickly, it's amazingly well-written).

I think it is quite obviously a metaphor for global warming in our own time and from that perspective, this book actually lacks some of the moral depth and complexity that his other books have. It all ends kind of abruptly and easily, suggesting there is some deus ex machina solution to human stupidity and selfishness that will save us all in the end.

I'm not really able to do justice to the fantastic and rich world that Banks has created here. He really is a master. I strongly recommend any of the Culture books (most of which aren't for sale in the States, or weren't), the listing of which can be found at his website.

For you Culture geeks out there, Feersum Endjinn takes place on earth and only gives very teeny hints to the origin of the Culture and the future of the humans who left the planet (referred to as the Diaspora). The only direct link to the Culture is, I believe, a tiny ant, but I'll need to dig a little deeper to confirm that.

24. A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

A Conspiracy of Paper book pictureMy dad lent me this because he wanted to know what I "thought about it." This worried me, but he assured me that it was an entertaining read and he was correct. It's kind of a heroic adventure (almost pulp) novel taking place in early 18th century england, when the modern notion of money and markets was just starting to develop. The hero is a jewish ex-boxer who has set himself up as a sort of Rennaisance bounty hunter, hunting down criminals and returning stolen material. It's a great idea, because the period is full of fantastic adventure potential. From the perspective of an entertaining read, it's pretty well executed. The plot is engaging and the characters, especially the hero, are well drawn out. There's lots of satisfying butt-kicking and revenge-getting. The plot becomes a bit overly complex and its mystery dependent more on many others holding out information rather than any real detective work. The author did some study in the field and knows the period well, but the language, the thinking and a lot of the goings-on in the book seem just a bit too contemporary. Probably it had to be done to make a rollicking adventure, but I guess I would have liked just a bit more detail and period verisimillitude. Compared, for instance, to Neal Stephenson's portrayal of the same period in his recent trilogy, A Conspiracy of Paper seems simplified, as if written for a poorly educated audience (i.e. the American book-buying public). Still, tons of fun and I'd definitely recommend it for a vacation read.

23. Buddha's Money by Martin Limón

Buddha's Money book pictureBuddha's Money was discovered, reviewed and lent to me from the good folks at Mount Benson Report. I generally agree with most everything written there. The book starts out with some action and keeps delivering, which makes for a quick and entertaining read. It does go a bit astray at times and because of its pacing nothing is ever that deep. My favorite aspect of the book (and probably the element presented with the most depth) is the setting itself. I don't know much about Korea or Korean history (which is interesting in and of itself in that I know a fair amount about Chinese and Japanese culture and history) and Limón does a great job of describing that halfway world created by the impact of a foreign army on the local culture. I would like to get a better sense of the two main characters, though the thoughtful Chicano with a respect for history and the violent black GI are a pretty good team for investigating this kind of mayhem. One other thing to note is that it is quite brutal. So violent and cruel at times that it actually made me go and check when it was written. It was 1998 and the more grisly elements seem to come from someone writing something today rather than in the '50s or '60s, which is when I had originally thought they were published.