Friday, May 25, 2007

28. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

Killing Mr. Griffin pictureI don't know if the name Lois Duncan rings a bell for you, but her books were all the rage when I was an adolescent back in the early 80s. She wrote teen horror novels that were genuinely freaky. I think they appealed to girls more and I have a vague memory of my sister getting them from the library and me reading them. She also wrote "I Know What You Did Last Summer" which got made into a series of teen horror flicks in the last few years.

Killing Mr. Griffin is about a group of high school students who get together to kidnap and scare a really severe english teacher. The tale is told mainly through the eyes of a square loser who gets coerced by the cool group because she won't be suspected. Of course, as suggested by the title, the plan goes too far and the teacher dies.

It's funny because before I started reading this book, I felt a bit cheap about it, like I shouldn't count it as one of my fifty because it wasn't that long and written for teens. But it actually took me a while to get into it. I'm just really not interested at all in the insecurities of teenages, especially girls. I wasn't when I was a teenager (not to say I didn't have them!) and I sure am not now. But once I got into the story, it went very quickly. It's well-written, clear and straightforward, though in a manner that one might associate with a book aimed at teenage girls (very direct emotional exposition). The characters are actually quite good. Each of the teens is slowly revealed, as well as the family around them. Their motivations make sense and nobody is really annoying or stupid. And the narrative moves forward. It's gripping. Though it all wraps up neatly, this almost seems like an afterthought, as everything really goes to shit in quite a nice way. You sense that Duncan prefers the chaos and impending doom to the happy ending.

What struck me most about this book is that it didn't pull any punches. The teens drink and smoke weed, without a big deal being made about it. Bad stuff happens and nobody is blamed. Duncan seems to be saying that bad shit can happen and it can be impossible to avoid. She doesn't waste any time moralizing or making her characters struggle with moral dilemmas. They make mistakes but you can see that it would have been almost impossible for them to do other wise. I have no idea what modern day realistic fiction teens are reading today, but I have this suspicion it is watered down and compromised with morals. I know that fantasy is back in a big way and it is too easy to avoid real harshness in that reality. Something about these teen books from the 70s were really hardcore, like Roger Cormack and SE Hinton (though she was really the one that started it all probably). I remember seeing them for order in those Arrow or whatever catalogues we used to get and feeling freaked out by their toughness and adulthood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

27. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Shutter Island pictureI had heard about Dennis Lehane because he is also one of the writer's for the best television series ever "The Wire". The producers chose writers for that show from people who wrote succesful genre fiction local to the urban northeast. Dennis Lehane's area of expertise is Boston.

However, Shutter Island, actually takes place on a small island outside of Boston. So it doesn't draw too much on local flavour. The island is home to a prison for the criminally insane. It's 1948 and two U.S. Marshals have been sent to the island because one of the patients has escaped. Things are weird right from the start, particularly how nobody seems all that freaked out. They get much weirder.

I am not going to go into any detail because I would say this book is good enough to recommend and part of the pleasure of the read is figuring out what is going on. Sometimes when you don't know what kind of a book a book is, what boundaries are acceptable given the genre and setting, you can be critical while you are reading it and then realize 50 pages later that what was going on was actually quite cool. Now, I don't like a book where you finish and then look back and think that was actually kind of interesting (this is even worse with movies). I want to be entertained while I am reading it and if I am constantly critical then I am not being entertained.

Fortunately, this is not the case with Shutter Island. The characters are interesting, the dialogue gripping and the setting is fantastic. There is enough weirdness, action, intrigue and mystery to keep you hooked. There were some false spots and sometimes the writing was a bit too florid (a common problem even among the better American authors these days; sparsity, people, sparsity!). Overall, though, a great, quick read. Recommend it for the plane or the beach or a rainy day with nothing to do.

Friday, May 18, 2007

26. The Separation by Christopher Priest

The Separation pictureSince seeing The Prestige, I became aware that Christopher Priest's career is going stronger than ever. The library here actually had 4 hardback copies of The Separation and it seems to have gotten such rave reviews, yet it completely passed under the radar here in North America.

There is something about Priest's writing style that compells me and yet keeps me at a certain distance. I suspect that he is a very careful writer, crafting his sentences because his prose always has a slightly objective feel to it, as if the characters themselves are slightly removed from their own lives. I really like that because it avoids all the flowery adverbs and adjectives and excessive self-psychology of so many american authors (even good ones). On the other hand, it can sometimes make you feel not totally caught up in the book. Again, I suspect it is deliberate, because he is still very good at changing the voice when he changes narrators.

The Separation is a story where these kinds of details are very signficant, because not only does it jump around from narrator, it also appears to jump around in realities! The basic story is framed in a contemporary author who writes histories of the Second World War. He is researching an elusive individual who, from his research, appears to have been both a concientious objector and an RAF bomber pilot. The bulk of the book is then the narrative of these characters, who turn out to be twin brothers. We see their story through their eyes and through a few other characters around them, as well as some historical documents.

On the surface, they were both excellent athletes, who rowed for England in the 36 Olympics in Berlin and then fought over their differing positions on war. One became an objector and a Red Cross worker, the other an RAF bomber. Each gets involved in some way with the escape of Rudolph Hess in 1941 (who, in our world, split from Hitler and claimed he was trying to make peace with England and ended his life in prison in Nuremburg).

From what I've written so far, it all sounds very straightforward. What I haven't omitted is that the modern author is living in a time very different from our own. I won't go into any more detail because it is cool in the reading. And as you read the various narratives, things get even weirder. This is what makes this such a great book. The stories of the twins are absorbing and ultimately really moving, but it is also working at a much bigger level, where complex layers of alternating realities make the reader question what drives history forward and how certain decisions make change in the world. I don't know if I get entirely what Priest's goal was but this is a rich, complex and moral book that makes you question your own stand on war, without lacking entertainment.

It is also clear that Priest has done a great deal of research himself, both on the larger political developments of the Second World War as well as the more personal details of living under the blitz and piloting a bomber. This makes this book a great read for any WWII buffs as well as sci-fi fans. Probably the most impactful book I've read this year so far.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

25. A Man of Affairs by John D. MacDonald

A Man of Affairs pictureThis is another of John D. MacDonald's non-Travis McGee books, dealing with business machinations and intrigue. I really enjoyed "A Key to the Suite" so I keep an eye open for these when they show up at used book stores. They are cheap, with cool covers and he has written quite a few. He does a good job of capturing the world of white male businessmen from the top to the bottom. And the corruption is there at every level. It takes different forms, but MacDonald does not hold back in showing that the evil and slime is inside the suit of the most sophisticated CEO as well as the tough who unloads the shrimp boat (and is handy with a gaff).

A Man of Affairs does not actually get so violent. It is more of a social drama. A group of people are invited to a private island in the Bahamas where they are being wooed to sell their shares to a shark-like investor (similar to the Gordon Gecko character, except 20 years earlier; just shows how little changes in the world of business). There are conflicts and sex and intrigue. It all centers around the one lower middle-class hardworking guy who has kept the company alive while its founder died. His ethical struggle, whether to accept the shark's tantalizing offer or fight him, is the center of the book.

Overall, this is good stuff and I am a big fan of MacDonald. But he loses me with the modern, romantic dialogue that goes on between the protagonist and his love interest. It's this really painful mix of early 60's white people lingo and what he considers post-feminism. So the women are frank, but coded, about sex in a way that is meant to be really adult and sophisticated but only reinforces the sexism of the period. And it is just annoying. This book has way, way too much of it. [insert quote here].

The ending was also all a bit pat. But it was still a good, quick airplane read with some great characters and descriptions and a bit of corporate tension.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

24. The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

The Dreaming Jewels pictureI actually read this book before the Jack Tatum autobiography. I somehow forgot it in my rush to get library books back on time. I found this one purely at random at the library. I have definitely heard the name Theodore Sturgeon before and I feel that somewhere it pops up in a Gilbert Shelton comic (can anyone verify this?).

The Dreaming Jewels is about an adopted boy who runs away from his totally abusive father. He hitches a ride with a bunch of midgets who happen to be a part of a carny. The only thing he brings with him is a jack-in-the-box doll (now smashed by his adopted father) with peculiar jewel eyes. As the story progresses, you see that the eyes and the boy are strangely connected. The narrative gets even deeper as the manager of the carny turns out to be a disgraced doctor who hates humanity and is obsessed with these strange jewels he once discovered.

This is a really interesting book, because it is a mix of two strong (and not well-respected) genres of the time it was written(1950): science fiction and crime. It is kind of half Charles Willeford half Andre Norton. There are seedy jazz clubs, carny love, corrupt local judges as well as telepathic powers, non-human intelligences and mad science. It's a combination that I really enjoyed, like my own personal genre peanut butter cup. Furthermore, this book went fast, the characters were interesting and well realized and there are some strong and moving themes about humanity and cruelty. I am definitely going to stay on the Theodore Sturgeon path.

23. They Call Me Assassin by Jack Tatum with Bill Kushner

The Call Me Assassin pictureI lived in Oakland, CA until I was 10 years old and I was a huge Raiders fan. John Matuszak actually lived up the block from us for a summer (these were very different times for professional athletes). I had the entire 1978 team in football cards and I went to the rally to keep the Raiders in Oakland. There I met many of the Raiders as well as the Raiderettes. My favorite player was the punter Ray Guy but I was pretty psyched to meet Jack Tatum, the infamous free safety. We shook my hands and I still remember how his huge hand completely enveloped mine. I was pretty psyched.

I found his book for fifty cents. Perfect plane reading. He talks a lot about his role on the team and his philosophy towards organized violence. Basically, he comes off as a very gentle, thoughtful person who knows his expertise and primary attributes are physical. So he uses them to the maximum within the rules allowed. He walks a thin line, sometimes sounding quite reasonable and other times quite scary. This contradiction is wrapped up quite nicely in this sentence: "I've used the word "kill" and when I'm hitting someone I really am trying to kill, but not like forever." The beginning and ending of the book go into this issue in some depth and ultimately, I kind of side with Tatum. You get the sense that the level of competition is so intense in the NFL that you have to be going for the kill or you'll lose your job.

The rest of the book follows his childhood in rural North Carolina and then urban (and rough) New Jersey, his college career and his first years with the Raiders. He also dedicates a chapter to rating his contemporaries, which brought back a lot of names and memories for me, particularily of that awesome Raiders team. They just don't build them like that anymore. Willie Brown, Fred Bilitnekoff, George Atkinson, Kenny Stabler, my man Cliff Branch.

There is one key passage that to me captures the old spirit of sports that seems totally lost today. In the last week of the 1976 season, the Raiders were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. They had a final, meaningless to them, game against Cincinatti. The Bengals had been on a tear and if they won, they would make the playoffs and knock the Steelers out. The Steelers were Oakland's main rival, had knocked them out of the playoffs two years before and were still considered a much tougher opponent, despite losing control of their own regular season. Oakland could have let Cincinatti win and thus avoided the Steelers in the playoffs. Here is what Jack had to say about that:

When you honestly believe you are the best in any profession, you do not shy away from a challenge; you seek out the best of the competition to test your talents against. Sure, Cincinnati had the potential to "get lucky" and beat us, but it would be a most difficult task. As Oakland Raiders, my teammates and I had no need of any of the Steeler psychology to get us ready for the Bengals. To go on to win the Super Bowl without facing Pittsburgh again would have been a very shallow victory indeed. But to blast Cincinnati away and trample everyone who got in the way of our rush to become number one, well, that is what our motto "Pride and Poise" is all about. It's all a part of becoming a man and being called a professional. To hide from any player or team is cowardice. If I had felt the Raiders were going to lay down, I would have asked to sit this one out. Maybe I would have even asked to be traded. Never in my career have I ever approached a football game or anything with the thought of letting the other team win. When Monday night came along, I am proud to say that every member on the Raider team and staff went onto the field with a ruthless attitude toward the Bengals.

They ended up winning 34-21 and then went on to become Super Bowl champions.

Maybe the Mavs should have read that before tanking it against the Warriors in the final game of the regular season only to have the not-worthy Warriors slap them down and out in the first round.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

22. Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

Darwinia picturePicked this one up on a total fluke. Meezly and I were in the sci-fi/fantasy section of la Bibliotheque Nationale (can you tell I am living well!:)) when this book caught her eye. She is a student of all things Darwinian (being highly evolved). She only glanced at it and put it back, but being in a very pulp/explorer phase right now I was intrigued by the cover, kept looking and decided to take it out. Plus, I had read The Chronoliths by the same author and was still interested in reading more of his work.

The whim was a good one as this turned out to be an excellent book. It follows the life of a young man born on the turn of the twentieth century. When he is 8 years old, he witnesses, as does the rest of the world, a strange light in the sky and the following total transformation of most of Europe into an entirely different ecology. The landmasses are the same, but the plant and animal life is totally alien and all the humans and their work is gone. The book then follows the protagonists exploration of this transformed continent and how the revelations of its origins change his life and the entire world.

It is, in effect, an alternate history. I was a little disappointed after the first half because I was hoping there would be more exploration and discovery of the crazy details of this alien world transposed upon earth. I was also hoping for more depth on the resurgence of creationism (because with such an obvious 'miracle' the theory of evolution becomes completely discounted but for a few heretics) and the conflicts that would arise from that. I suspect that this book would have been better served in a longer format, like a trilogy, because the questions it poses and the story possibilities it creates are vast.

On the other hand, I appreciated that the actual source of the transformation and the great story behind it is fully explained and justified. I won't say more beyond that it is big picture science fiction (reminded me a lot of some of Zelazny's ideas). I am actually glad that it was kept to one single book, even though I felt some things were skipped or rushed over. As I have said many times, I have neither the will nor the time to get into long series and trilogies, so Darwinia served me well.

A rich and satisfying read, with a gripping story and some very cool concepts. Recommended.