Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 year-end wrap-up

Reading is cool picture

A little late with this baby. Next year, I resolve to get my last few books written-up and posted before the holidays are over!

Overall, I'm quite happy with my performance this year. I really wanted to ensure that I would reach 50, as I had slipped the two previous years. I pushed hard early in the year and was well on track, actually cruising to easily break my record. But I got derailed. Mostly by gaming (Draconis is in the beginning of October and caused a big flurry of one-shots afterwards), though perhaps other bad habits got in the way as well (hello, internet!). But I pulled through in the end and have achieved my goal. Not that the quantity of books is so important, but having that goal really helps to remind me when I'm not reading and need to get started again.

It was an excellent year for Post-Apocalyptic literature. I (or others, especially Lantzvillager) found and read a lot of lesser-known works to the extent that I feel that I have a decent grasp of the genre now. In particular, I devoured a lot of John Christopher. For some reason, his weird mix of British sexual anxiety and social criticism really appealed to me. I have a couple more of his books on deck and I will continue to seek him out, but my burning fire has reduced itself somewhat to more of a glowing coal. He will be someone I'll continue to read from time to time, but I won't actively seek out.

I also gained a greater appreciation of the hard-boiled genre, particular through August West's excellent blog. I had the perception that most of those pulp crime books were of a less quality than the really well-known names, enjoyable but more for the genre elements than any innate excellence. I am glad to have been disabused of that notion, discovering that there is a world of top-notch writing and storytelling buried in those (sadly) crumbling and hard to find old paperbacks. The only real problem is that they really are hard to find and becoming more and more recognized as having collection value, thus also more expensive.

My other highlight was my trip to Winnipeg which really revived my used books hunting instinct. I've been to the used bookstores in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal so many times now that it was all becoming a bit boring and dissatisfying. My trip to Winnipeg and the awesome used bookstore scene there created a feeling not unlike the jaded hunter the first time he decides to make man his prey. How it raises the blood! I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to visit any other middle-level city this next year. Halifax suggests itself as having potential...

Donald Westlake's death at the end of the year was quite shitty. It coincides with the re-publication of his stellar Parker series, 3 at a time, in order by the University of Chicago Press. I may buy those and re-read them (it will be the third time) in order to honour his life and work and help spread the word about their awesomeness.

Other than that, I don't have any particular goals for this year. I may not even push strongly to achieve the 50. I would just like to read a little more consistently and perhaps absorb a bit more. For the 50 books community, I hope for continued activity and participation among all the blogs. I think we are all more motivated when we received comments and I thought we had a strong year this year. Great work everyone!

Onward to 2009!

54. Dead Run by Bill Pronzini

Dead Run pictureOver the holidays, we went out to the teeny 4-Star Theatre in the Richmond district of San Francisco to see the excellent Sparrow. After, in looking for a place to eat, we found the Green Apple bookstore and I picked up Dead Run. The bookstore was really cool. Two separate stores, books everywhere, all kinds of nooks and crannies and a great range of new and used books. My only complaint is that it leans a bit towards the intellectual side and the science fiction and mystery sections were not treated very respectfully. Books were out of order, genres mixed up. Still, definitely worth a trip to the next time you are in SF. Actually that whole little Richmond district, though a bit farther out and not particularly glamourous was really quite enticing and I'd recommend it to those of you who have been to San Francisco a few times and want to get off the beaten path a bit. We had a fantastic meal of Burmese food there and there were a lot of other very enticing restaurants we passed.

Bill Pronzini is one of those prolific writers who has never hit it really big, but keeps producing quality work and maintains a lot of respect in the mystery and pulp community. I don't think I've ever read anything by him until Dead Run, but his name sure felt familiar to me.

I was enticed by the premise, a guy on a ferry that runs along the Malaysian coast gets caught up in trouble on the way to a new job just outside of Kuala Lumpur. It's a quick, entertaining read, as promised. The action and pacing are excellent. The atmosphere and locations are particularly well done. The beat-up old ferry, slums outside of KL, a rubber plantation and the deep jungle are all evocatively rendered. It leans a bit too much on a romantic plot (which is satisfying nonetheless) but overall delivers an entertaining action read. Good stuff. My guess is that Pronzini most of the time delivers the goods and you can probably find his books used for cheap, so if you ever do run across one and are looking for something to read, you probably have a good chance of being entertained if you buy it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

53. The Lizard in the Cup by Peter Dickinson

My parents have always been big fans of Peter Dickinson. He wrote a mysteries and children's books, the latter of which were often in fantastic or sci-fi settings. He was quite popular in the 60s and 70s, but you don't hear about him as much these days. Perhaps in Britain he still holds a place on the bookstore shelves.

One of the great scandals of my childhood was when my dad was reading Dickinson's The Weathermonger nightly to my sister and I. I was around the age where I was reading everything and at some point, long before my dad had finished the reading, I snuck the book and finished it on my own. I can't remember how it got found out, I might have admitted it. I might have even blurted out the ending just as we were getting there! In any case, it caused a bit of an uproar, probably mostly spurred on by my sister, who never wasted an opportunity to get me in trouble.

I've always meant to start reading him and my dad recommended The Lizard in the Cup as the best place to start of the three titles by him we had. Dickinson's detective character was James Pibble and this is, I believe, the penultimate book in that series. Here he is on a Greek Island at the request of a tycoon. The latter wants to build a hotel there, but has received information that suggests he might be stepping on some mafia toes. Pibble is brought in along with a bunch of other toadies of the tycoon to figure out if this is so and how to deal with it.

This probably wasn't actually the best place to start. Ultimately, it's quite a good book, but the reader is assumed to know a lot about the protagonist. That knowledge doesn't impact on the plot, but it would have helped to have a better idea of his past and his personality, as they both come into play. It took me a while to catch on to the style of the prose and Pibble's behaviour and inner thoughts. Once I did, though, and the nature of the narrative became clear, I quite enjoyed this book. It's richly and subtly written, with lots going on and implied. I think you could label this as an "intelligent" or "thinking man's" mystery.

Pibble himself has a very conservative, pro-law and order core (not unlike Gilbert, but a bit more explicit in the main character), which surprised me a bit, considering my parents political leanings.

It gave me a good taste of Peter Dickinson and I'll keep an eye out for his stuff in the future.

Friday, December 26, 2008

52. An English Murder by Cyril Hare

An English Murder pictureI was at home over the holidays and really in the mood for a good, British mystery. My dad recommended this one from my parents' excellent collection of paperback mysteries and it definitely satisfied my needs! I had seen this book lying around for years and I always thought, mainly because of the early '70s and genericy mystery cover that it was perhaps a decent read, a nice little find by my parents that they thought good enough to not let go of. Turns out it is actually a classic of the genre, well-received upon publication and considered today among aficionados to be one of the best of these kinds of mysteries.

Faber Finds does a better (and quicker) job than I can in describing the plot:

A classic detective story from one of the best-loved Golden Age crime writers, Cyril Hare, originally published in 1951.

The setting of An English Murder seems, at first, to be a very conventional one. A group of family and friends come together for Christmas at a country house, Warbeck Hall. The house is owned by Lord Warbeck, a dying and impoverished peer who wants to be among loved ones for what he thinks will be his last Christmas. The holiday decorations are up and snow is falling fast outside. The guests range from the Lord’s difficult son to a visiting Czech historian. There is, of course, a faithful butler and his ambitious daughter.

But when the murders begin, there is nothing at all conventional about them - or the manner of their detection. This ingenious detective story gleefully plays with all of our expectations about what an ‘English murder’ might be and offers enough twists and turns to keep us reading into the night.

An excellent, tight little mystery. I enjoyed it on many levels. The pacing and writing are excellent. The dialogue of the butler is particularly enjoyable. The mystery itself is actually solvable by the reader, not easily but in the sense that the author doesn't try to trick or misdirect you. I like to be part of the process when I read a classic murder mystery and I certainly felt that way. I didn't entirely figure it out, though, so the mystery was interesting right up until the end. Finally, it is all wrapped around history and the fading of the British aristocracy in a way that gives it depth. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 19, 2008

51. Pastel City by M. John Harrison

The Pastel City pictureDoc gave me a beautiful old paperback copy of this under-heralded sci-fi classic. It's one of his favourites from his youth and he wanted to pass it along. You could technically put it in the post-apocalyptic genre, but it's truly a fantasy book. It's so far beyond the collapse of our modern empire that other civilizations have already come and gone. The advanced technological remains still exist in the ruins of the past and the unearthing and using of this old tech by a handful of what become, in effect, magic users, is the only PA trope that separates Pastel City from true fantasy.

The story is about the fading Viriconium Empire, that is slowly being weakened by the northern tribes. The main characters are a bunch of retired Methven, once the elite knights of Viriconium. They are drawn back to their roles by the resurgence of northern attacks who are now aided by a newly-discovered and especially fearsome technology.

Pastel City has some really cool stuff in it. The overall narrative is pretty standard stuff, getting the gang back together again, journeying to some mysterious place, finally kicking some ass like you knew the main protagonist could, but the trappings are so rich and inventive, and described so well, that it doesn't come off as cliched. There is some seriously cool shit in this book: a semi-intelligent robot bird, a noxious dwarf who rides around in a reconstructed power suit with a vibro-axe, brain-eating robot soldiers. Reading that list back, I can see how they don't sound all that original. But their description and involvement in the plot render them truly cool. Description is done gradually, so you get an increasingly detailed and richer visualization as the book goes on. Here is an example of one of the snippets of description for the bird:

When the sun broke through, he saw that it was a bird of metal: every feather, from the long, tapering pinions of the great wide wings to the down on its hunched shoulders, had been stamped or beaten from wafer-thin iridium. It gleamed and a very faint humming came from it. He grew used to it, and found that it could talk on many diverse subjects.

As in the quote above, it's not just physical descriptions that make up the creatures, but enticing, open-ended tidbits about their capabilities. Very nice. I can see why Doc got into this book so much as a young man.

Ultimately, though, I felt a bit distant from the proceedings. I don't think this is necessarily a fault of the author (though after doing a bit of research on the Viriconium books and Harrison, I have a slightly different perspective about which I'll talk about below), but rather an indication of my own dissatisfied relationship with fantasy as a genre. I was never a huge fantasy fan as a geeky teen, but Middle Earth, Shannara and Hyboria were huge to me. Since I've "grown up", I've almost entirely abandoned fantasy as a genre, particularly in my gaming. I had previously thought it was because the rules for D&D 3rd edition sucked so bad that I gave up on fantasy in my gaming (since I so closely associated the genre with the system mechanics), but after reading The Pastel City, I'm starting to think it's the genre.

One of the reasons we read a narrative is because we connect with the characters. They have problems and conflicts and all that and we want to see what they do and how it all turns out. I feel like I am not able to connect with those problems in a fantasy world. Why this is so, I'm not really sure. When I try to break it down, I'm not sure it makes any sense. Most fantasy books, though in another setting, still address human concerns. I just know that most of the time when I start a fantasy book, I feel this kind of intellectual tiredness. I'm not drawn in. In Pastel City, for instance, when a major character dies, I kind of cared, but I didn't feel any real connection to the depth of the relations he had with his fellows. Were they a bunch of heisters brought back out of retirement from their heyday in the '50s, rather than techno-knights of a dying future kingdom, I think I would have somehow felt a much stronger connection.

I wonder if it's because as you get older, your capacity for emotional connection hardens (like everything else about you, except your muscles) and sort of sticks with the worlds you have already invested in. For instance, I don't feel this way about the Hyboria of Conan the Barbarian, a setting I spent a lot of time in as an adolescent. It's true that Hyboria is more pulpy than fantastical. Though I still feel an immense ennui at the idea of reading any of George R.R. Martin's books, which are relatively non-fantastic.

The other obvious counterpoint to my theory is why I enjoy science fiction so much. I really don't know, but I won't bore you any longer with my own internal ruminations. I'll let this idea fester and test it some more as I continue my reading. I am grateful for the Pastel City for helping me reach this insight and for being pretty cool and entertaining nonetheless.

I did a bit of internetting around on M. John Harrison and it seems he was one of those self-loathing genre authors who wished he could have written some fancy literature. He wrote a few things that enraged the geek-o-sphere, denouncing both escapism and world-building. The world of Viriconium suffered from his pretention, getting ripped apart by a simplistic post-modernism (no stable reality, narrator revealed, blah, blah, blah zzzzz) in the later novels and short stories.

Here is a brief essay where he attacks the attempt by others' to recreate an author's world. It contains misguided and jargony pap like this:

Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication.

Unfortunately, that's a mature and published writer saying things like "reassertion of control" and not a freshman in a sophomore lit class at a liberal arts college.

Pastel City is the first and most straightforward of the books taking place in Viriconium, so it could be that my disassociation was also a bit of my own post-modern b.s. detector going off.

As genre fiction becomes more and more respectable, we will have fewer and fewer authors denouncing their own milieu and trying to re-fashion themselves as "real" writers. I do think we should question ourselves and critique notions of escapism and world-building, but let's do it from an objective, questing perspective, not from an inferiority complex.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

50. Journey Into Terror by Peter Rabe

Journey into Terror picture

The cover and back blurb of this book promised some serious hard-boiled brutality. It started out in a very dark place but never quite reached the depths I feared and desired. It did a good job of capturing a couple of lost women and the world they inhabit, but Rabe ultimately goes too easy on his protagonist (not something he usually did). Maybe he was having a good week or so when he wrote this one.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

49. Paint, Gold & Blood by Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert picture

[The dates on the rest of 2008's post reflect when I actually finished reading the books, but I am writing all of these on New Year's Day. Got a bit lazy about my blog over the xmas break!]

This is one of Michael Gilbert's more recent books, one I hadn't heard of before. It's not bad, but features many elements that Gilbert has done better before (boys school shenanigans, UK-Europe border crossings, art forgery). The relationship between the young protagonist and his wife rings a bit anachronistic as well. Gilbert's later books can be quite good (Rollercoaster has a real moral punch, for instance) so it's not that he's getting old. I just think this one lacked a bit of inspiration. I enjoyed it, though.

Monday, December 01, 2008

48. Squib by Nina Bawden

Squib Book pictureI found this one as well in Winnipeg. When I was a kid, we used to read a lot of British children's books, like The Box of Delights, Swallows and Amazons and even a ton of Enid Blighton (which I guess was looked down upon by certain people). These books always seemed to have a dark side to them and this became more explicit when I started reading the books aimed at adolescents from England. I remember in particular one that was called The Cage or The Cave or something like that which starts out with a guy waking up in a dungeon having no memory of who he is. He slowly meets some other people who are there also missing their memory. The book is about them exploring the place, finding out what is going on and who they are. It turns out they were all juvenile criminals and the place was an experiment in psychological manipulation and rehabilitation. I remember it being quite dark.

So when I saw the back blurb for Squib, it definitely sounded like it fit into that genre:

'Who said Squib was unhappy?' said Robin. 'I mean, it's not as if he was black and blue all over or covered in blood. You can't go tearing off to the police or something and say "Look, there's this kid in the park, we don't know who he is or where he lives or anything about him at all, but he's shy and he's got odd eyes and a bit of a bruise on one leg."'

But Kate couldn't leave it at that. She simply had to go on finding out about the odd, frightened little boy, until she found herself in the most terrifying situation of her life.

I'm pretty sure I've read some of Nina Bawden's books when I was a kid. My sister remembers them and she was a pretty popular writer. So it's quite likely they were in our school library.

Squib struck me on two levels. The reality it presents is class-conscious and tough. People are pathetic and lost and desparate. But it's all viewed through the eyes of the children protagonists, to whom a lot of it is quite mysterious and exciting. The older boy who smokes and is a member of a bike gang comes off as really cool and kind of frightening to the kids, but we see that he is actually a bit of a loser among his peers and his home life is quite depressing. And it works on both those levels. You get caught up in the exploration and mystery of the forest around the old folks home while also feeling sympathetic to the lost souls that live there. This realism, is I think, the result of Bawden taking the children's perspective seriously and treating it with respect. This is something we don't get as much in North America (and perhaps less and less in these modern times) where everything is sugar-coated and the bad stuff hidden away.

A short, engaging and honest little story. I'd recommend this for young readers who want to move onto things with a bit more depth and bite.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

47. Quag Keep by Andre Norton

Quag Keep Trade Paperback pictureQuag Keep Pocket Book pictureWhoah! I've got whiplash from slamming the brakes so hard on my book reading! I was whaling away with all the summer travel and being away from the distractions at home (i.e. the internet) but I hit a wall this winter. To be fair with myself, there has been a lot of productivity in other recreational realms (gaming, cooking, building and fixing stuff), but I really should have put away the 50 by now.

Just to give you an example of how poor my concentration is with books these days, I found a really cool pocket paperback version of Quag Keep (on your left) when I was in Winnipeg. I had already bought the trade paperback (on your right) brand new but this one was much cooler looking and only cost $2. I started reading the older version, but the type was so small and the wordcount per page so dense, that I had to switch over to the big margin, fancy-paper trade paperback like a sucker! Man, what's next for me, The Kite Runner!

Quag Keep is considered one of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons novels. It isn't an official D&D novel from one of the popular world settings like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, but rather a fantasy novel inspired by D&D. It was written in 1978. I don't know what the connection was, whether it was a marketing arrangement or whether Andre herself actually played D&D. There is a little frontispiece that says "The author wishes to express appreciation for the invaluable aid of E. Gary Gygax of TSR, expert player and creator of the war game, Dungeons and Dragons, on which the background of Quag Keep is based. I also wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of Donald Wollheim, an authority and collector of fantasy miniatures, whose special interest was so valuable for my research."

Quag Keep is about a group of heroes in a fantasy land forced to perform a quest. What separates it from classic fantasy fare is that they all have very vague memories about who they are and how they got there. They know what they can do and have snippets of memory based on their capabilities, but other than that, they don't know why they are doing what they are doing and how they got there. They have a couple of weird moments with a wizard where they start to think they are actually from somewhere else. They also all have a bracelet of dice that they can't remove or turn, but who spin on their own from time to time, usually when they are about to encounter danger. The conceit, I think, is that these heroes are D&D players who have inhabited the bodies of the heroes they are playing.

But it's much vaguer than that and that is what makes the book interesting. As a fantasy novel, it's rather generic. There are some cool battles and scenery and the characters are pretty neat, but there is no real depth beyond them trying to follow this quest. As I read it, I really got the feeling that Andre Norton was fascinated with the idea of characters in a roleplaying game and their limitations relative to their fictional counterpart. And not just any roleplaying game, but a really bad one. This is a serious railroad. The heroes are all geased (forced on a magical quest) for which they have no actual inherent motivation. The characters are basically a collection of powers and skills, with some racial features to make them distinct. I wonder if Norton didn't actually play in a game and was frustrated at all the things the characters couldn't do. Ultimately, Quag Keep seems like a critique of D&D more than anything. Or at least a badly-run D&D game. I mean if you haven't guessed it already, guess where there quest leads them? That's right, The Dungeon Master, who is briefly portrayed as a whiny, manipulative little nerd.

Not the most exciting read in the world, but a fascinating document for gamers today. I'd love to know a little more about what brought this book into being.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

46. The Vendetta by Nick Quarry

The Vendetta pictureI found this book in Winnipeg, looking for The Don is Dead by Nick Quarry on behalf of Lantzvillager. He will have to explain how he found out about this author, but I'm glad he did. This is good, solid, workaday crime writing that was enjoyable from start to finish. à

It's the story of a Sicilian immigrant, Paolo Regalbaota in 30s who gives up the life of a budding gangster to take care of his wife and twins. Unfortunately, they get blown up in an extortion hit (they live underneath the restaurant where the protagonist is a waiter). It's already suggested that Paolo was a strong person, physically and mentally so when he comes out of the hospital he is ready and capable to get revenge. The fire that burned his home and family also scoured his emotional insides, leaving him brutally cold with one motivation: vendetta!

However, the scope of the novel broadens considerably, when he takes up with the second-in-command of a weakening Capo and works with him to fight back the capo's enemies as well as to take command himself. This ignites an all-out gang war with all kinds of hijackings, tommy gun battles, ambushes, raids and a lot of other good stuff.

The Vendetta does not contain the most elegant of prose, but it keeps moving along. I kept forgetting that it took place during prohibition because the writing style had a very '70s feel, which is when it was written. The neat details of the mafia's methods and the political affiliations between the various gangs (Jewish, Irish and Italian, and the subsets of the Italians: Sicilian, Neopolatin and others), the cops and the politicians make up for the anachronistic tone however and there is a ton of great action. A lot of dudes get their heads blown off. Good sex too.

I did a little research using The Internet and discovered that Nick Quarry is the nom de plume of Marvin Albert, one of these writers who cranked out a ton of paperbacks. I'll have to keep my eyes open for him as well.

Friday, October 10, 2008

45. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Master & Commander pictureThese well-known Napoleonic-era naval adventure books have been tempting me for years. I kept going back and forth with the slight hesitation that they were dumbed down and written for a mass audience. You have to be so suspicious of books that are really popular as they usually suck. On my trip to Saskatchewan Manitoba we shared a flight with another couple from the wedding and the guy really talked me into checking them out. He spoke particularly of the relationship between the captain and the surgeon (I've seen the movie, so I knew the basic premise) and the beautiful descriptions of the ship at sea. So despite having already purchased an armload of books, I snagged this one (easy to find and cheaply priced). It's the first of the 20-book series (though the movie has the same name, it's actually based on a later book). So if you want to get into this series, this is where you start.

Well holy shit, I was sucked in right from the beginning. This book has the kind of rich, British language that I love to read and immediately the relationship between the doctor and the captain is so compelling. You know, I started writing about their initial encounter, but then I realized it would be a major spoiler of what was for me one of the many pleasurable moments in this book. So even though it's only the first 30 pages or so, I'll leave it up to those of you who find this kind of thing appealling to read it for yourselves.

Here is an example of the language. The captain is having some tension with his First Mate, the latter being an Irish Catholic who was, unbeknownst to the captain, involved in the uprising against the crown.

'...And,' said he [Captain Jack Aubrey], hitching himself a little closer to Stephen's ear, 'I blundered into one of those unhappy gaffes... I picked up the list and read off Flaherty, Lynch, Sullivan, Michael Kelly, Joseph Kelly, Sheridan and Aloysius Burke -those chaps that took the bounty at Liverpool - and I said "More of these damned Irish Papists; at this rate half the starboard watch will be made up of them, and we shall not be able to get by for beads" - meaning it pleasantly, you know. But then I noticed a damned frigid kind of a chill and I said to myself, "Why, Jack, you damned fool, Dillon is from Ireland, and he takes it as a national reflexlion." Whereas I had not meant anything so illiberal as a national reflexion, of course; only that I hated Papists. So I tried to put it right by a few well-turned flings against the Pope,; but perhaps they were not as clever as I thought for they did not seem to answer.'

That joke about the beads just really cracked me up. The book is filled with this kind of dialogue, showing a range of idiom from the most educated (the doctor), to the badly educated (the captain) to the uneducated (the seamen).

My only problem is that in the descriptions of work on the ship and in the sea battles, I can barely understand any of the vocabulary. No real effort is made to explain it to the reader, except that sometimes brief explanations are made to the doctor, who has no experience at sea. I appreciate this and wouldn't want to lose the flow, but I would love to have some kind of electronic book version where you could click on words and see a picture of a ship and what the hell the part they were talking about was. Same with maneuvers. (Update, I think I need to find this book.)

The other thing that sort of throws me is that it seems to have an almost flippant attitude towards the violence. I understand that this probably reflects the brutally stoic zeitgeist of the British Empire, but it almost seems unrealistic. The deaths and violent wounds of the sailors are treated offhandedly, merely as references to the doctor's work for the most part. It makes it seem like naval battles on the high seas in this period were as fun as a rougher-than-average game of rugger. There is a very similar attitude towards discipline, with men happily accepting their flogging for being drunk. I'm sure this is how the ruling class wanted it, but I'm not so sure it was all so rosy for most of the people. On the other hand, that could be my own modern PC interpretation trying to be imposed on what is a not inaccurate capturing of a period. The rest of the reading is so deliciously enjoyable, and it is an adventure story after all, that I think I can move beyond these minor concerns. I mean, I wish it was that way!

So quite seriously, after reading The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I thought I had reached the peak of reading pleasure this year, but I have to say that Master & Commander has edged it out and it if wasn't for me not understanding the maritime vocabulary (oh dear god is this more empirical, geeky information I am going to have to absorb!?), this may have been the book of the year. Definitely lives up to its reputation. I'm tempted to just go get the second one right now, but the books on deck shelf are falling off the edges, so I need to cut into that first. Highly, highly recommended.

Monday, October 06, 2008

44. Resurrection Days by Wilson Tucker

Resurrection Days pictureI found out about Wilson Tucker because I read somewhere that his book "Wild Talent" is considered the classic of the mutant human with super brain power being hunted by the authorities sub-sub-genre of books. I have yet to be able to find it, but I did find a couple of other books by him, including this one. It's about a guy who wakes up in some weird world run entirely by women. His memory of his past life is fuzzy, but he knows he came from the Midwest during WWII and that he was some kind of handyman.

As he explores this new world, which is basically a circle of houses, all facing outwards to a constantly revolving road, he also starts to remember his past. Beyond the road is a forest, a graveyard, a factory and endless flat plains of grass. He soon learns that he is the only man with any kind of consciousness. All the rest are zombies, ordered around by women. The women themselves, though fully sentient, have a very limited perspective. They have no history and lead very dull lives, eating food that pops up in their little home ovens, never having romantic relations, let alone reproducing.

It turns out that they are going to the graveyards and digging up the bodies of men and resurrecting them, where they are used as labour. You never really find out who is behind all this. There is some authority called Mother and a hierarchy, but everybody is just following the established way things are.

What makes this book entertaining and not just some exploration of a bizarre future is that the protagonist is a kind of happy-go-lucky guy who spends most of the time trying to figure out how to make whiskey and cigars with the food machine and how to get with the women, at which he succeeds. He finally starts to upset the order to much and the last half of the book is a long, slow and weird chase.

It's actually kind of an enjoyable read, probably better than what it sounds like above. I look forward to other stuff from Wilson Tucker.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

43. Hombre by Elmore Leonard

Hombre pictureI've heard a lot of good stuff about Elmore Leonard's westerns. He wrote them at the beginning of his career and they did fairly well but he moved onto crime at some point and never looked back. I was told that his westerns are quite easy to find, but it took me a trip to Winnipeg!

Hombre is about a final stage coach run from an outpost where the coaches are shutting down because the train has made them obsolete (doing the same to the little towns that used to service the coach stops). It's not actually a stage coach, but a "mud wagon", a smaller vehicle that was usually used by the coach company to bring supplies out. It's less comfortable but more versatile. The final run is forced upon the company by various people who need to make the trip and it is this varied cast of characters, and one in particular, Hombre, that drive the story.

There is the boss of the outfit, his assistant who is the narrator, a younger woman who had been captured by Apaches and a couple, the husband of whom was a Station Agent, responsible for administering trade with the natives. A tough cattle hand shows up at the last minute and forces an ex-soldier out of the coach. And then there is Hombre, who is seen only through the eyes of the narrator. Over the course of the beginning of the book, we learn that he is a white man who had lived in Mexico and then with the indians and ended up as a deputy on the reservation. He had "gone native" and is often mistaken for an indian. He says little, just enough to let it be know that he has an issue with the way the natives are treated. He ends up sitting outside on the mud wagon with the boss and driver because of objections by the Station Agent.

The setup is this little cramped wagon in the middle of the desert seething with racial and sexual tension. The four people inside are crammed knee to knee and it is suggested that the wife of the Station Agent is too young and not faithful. It's actually quite rich and subtle stuff. And then shit happens and we learn a lot more about everybody. It's all done very subtly, though, with a light touch. The narrator himself is young but its written from the perspective of someone looking back and trying to figure it all out.

When I read this, what come to mind was Cormac Macarthy. Unfortunately, what should happen is that we read Macarthy and then Elmore Leonard comes to mind. And probably a few other western authors. Because Leonard did this stuff first and did it well, if not better. This is a dark and realistic look at a very mean wild west, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between the whites and the aboriginals. It is very sympathetic to the latter group, but ultimately moves beyond to damn us all. Nobody wins in this book and there is no real justice. Just a tiny slice of bravery and sacrifice that makes everyone else look even worse than they already did.

Also only took 188 pages to do this and do it effectively. Great stuff.

Friday, September 19, 2008

42. The Canadian Bomber Contract by Philip Atlee

The Canadian Bomber Contract pictureI found this little gem at Nerman's in Winnipeg. It was in the Action section (the existence of which gives me hope for the world) among a bunch of other Philip Atlee books featuring Joe Gall. I was only aware of them because Lantzvillager had asked me to find a specific one (The Green Wound Contract, which I later did find, but in the Vintage section and under the title The Green Wound). All the covers looked interesting, but I picked this one because of the Canadian content. Hell, the inner blurb reads "Joe had seen plenty of violent cities, but in Montreal, sudden death, maimings, stabbings and bombings seemed to be part of the scenery." so you know I had to get it.

Most of the book takes place in Montreal, Quebec City and the Niagara Falls, with a brief trip to Toronto. Atlee seems to be one of those adventure writers who writes because he went somewhere. He spends a lot of time describing specific details, either geographical or cultural, that you get the strong sense he actually witnessed. Though I was only 2 in 1971, and his perspective was very much the anglo outsider, he seems to have captured Montreal very well. The following passage confirmed this to me:

"While I was walking through the dawn streets of Toronto toward police headquarters, I reflected that the town might be the financial headquarters of Canada, but that in comparison to Montreal it was an ugly and dowdy place, lacking both charm and beautiful girls..."

Some things never change.

It's a fun, quick read because of the location and the crazy sexism (he basically tells women what to do and they do it, for the most part). But the plot seems like an afterthought, plopped on like a shovelful of wet cement. And the final reveal was so stupidly obvious and preposterous that I had guessed it about halfway through but couldn't actually believe he would try and go through with it. Despite that, it's not a terrible read. The protagonist is a tough guy and deals out summary justice for the CIA, but he's actually kind of liberal, sympathizing with the draft dodgers (the ones who apply themselves to society but are just against war) and deserters and arguing with his boss about these issues. The badguys and the druggie hippie barefoot rebel crowd among whom they insinuate themselves are quite entertainingly portrayed. The writing can be flip, which sometimes is distracting and other times puts forth darkly humourous little gems like this:

"I had been married shortly once, but it went bad when I discovered my wife in the sack with a neighbor, whom I beat to death immediately with a small portable radio. That's not as hard as it sounds; those little plastic jobs have some good handholds on them."

Excellent use of the semi-colon there.

This is something like #19 in the series, so I suspect that Atlee was mailing them in a bit, delivering just enough location, sex and patriotic violence for his audience. I read that early in his career while convalescing in an Oregon hospital bed, after a Korean war wound, he was approached by the CIA. They offered him money if he would put certain biases in his books, which he refused to do. I'd never heard of that practice. It bears looking into.

I'll read another Joe Gall, but probably look towards the earlier books.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Regional Report: Winnipeg is for lovers...

...used book lovers that is! I went to Winnipeg for the first time in my life for a wedding. I just had this feeling ahead of time that Winnipeg would be a town with some good book stores. I don't know exactly why I felt this way, a blend of the general theory that the poorer parts of the first world tend to have better used bookstores and thrift stores, combined with some vague notion that Winnipeg is a seat of a lot of old school labour and lefty activity (those commies tend to read a lot; dangerous activity, that). I did a bit of googling ahead of time and the results were promising. I had prepared myself a little map and was happy to discover that a lot of the stores I found were within walking distance of the hotel we were staying at. Even better, the way the wedding weekend was structured gave me a lot of free time during the crucial shopping hours on Friday and Saturday.

We started out on Friday morning and the very first bookstore we went into immediately kicked ass. It's called Red River books and was in a beautiful old warehouse. Their mystery section was a bit thin, but their sci-fi was excellent and their prices even better. They had a lot of paperbacks for $1.00, something you just don't see much anymore. They also had some used gamebooks, new and used comics and all kinds of other dusty things. It was one of those places you could just poke around in for hours. The proprietor was almost nearly deaf and we had to write some questions down that we had for him.

I later learned from the groom that the place was run by a father and son team who won the lotto big time several years ago. He said you can see them riding around town on their bikes. I guess the bookstore is their labour of love and maybe that explains the old-fashioned low prices on their books.

I also found their a brochure labeled EAT! Bistro presents Winnipeg's BOOK WALK. It unfolded to a sweet little walking map, detailing "The Book District", in which I happened to be right in the middle! There were several places that I hadn't found on google so this was a real bonus. I also found a great little comic store (where I got not one but two "nice shirt!"'s for the Car Wars shirt I was wearing; geek cred baby!). These guys knew there stuff. They had the entire run of Kamandi which I was seriously tempted to get, but really all I want is the map in issue #32.

So the Book Walk ended up taking me most of Friday, with a lot of good little finds here and there. If you are going to Winnipeg, you can find the brochure at any of the participating bookstores, including Red River, which is linked above. They don't have a website, but there is an email to contact, so if you are heading out there and want this info, post a comment and I'll send it to you.

Near the end of the afternoon, Meezly couldn't keep up the pace and I had to send her back. At the last store on the brochure, the small but organized Bison Books, I found another brochure! This time it was the Book Hunter's Map of Winnipeg 2008-09 edition, sponsored by the members of the Winnipeg Assocation of Secondhand Booksellers. Except for Bison Books, every single store in this new brochure had not been mentioned in the Book Walk brochure! The difference was that almost all of these were outside of the downtown area. The friendly clerk explained to me that this second group were all paying members of the association and that for whatever reasons, the more centrally located groups did not feel the need to belong to that association. All the info in the second brochure can be found on their website.

I didn't have a car but had a bit of time and decided to take a bus to Black-Letter Books & White-Light Psychics which also happened to be not too far from the only game store in town. It was not a mistake! A fantastic little store, way up on a very empty part of Main street with very nicely organized and easily accessible shelves. They had a very nice sci-fi collection and some excellent collectibles (including some sweet original REH paperbacks). I only found one thing there, a beautiful hardback of The Snake by John Godey (writer of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) for $6. This store also had a psychic and a really friendly dog. Great place.

I visited several stores on Saturday, but the highlight of the trip was Nerman's the last place I went to (and making me late for the party on Saturday; no worries, though I made up for it). Holy crap. This store was amazing. They have an excellent selection of sci-fi, mystery and action (yes, that's how kickass Winnipeg used bookstores are, they almost all had an Action section), all in paperback. I found stuff I was looking for in those sections, including two books on Lantzvillager's list (that's always a coup!). But the shelves kept going and guess what, they had a massive "Vintage" section. And it was no joke! Books just kept piling into my hands. I found Journey Into Terror by Peter Rabe and a first edition Parker (The Man with the Getaway Face, but the cover was ripped and I have it already). I really could have spent a lot more time here, but time I didn't have. Still an extremely satisfying stop and I strongly recommend those of you in this game to try and get a chance to check out Nerman's. He also has an incredible collection of children's books, including tons of old british classics. I barely got a chance to look at that, but it was promising to swallow me up.

I ended up coming home with 23 books, swelling my on deck shelf to its very edges. For used books, Winnipeg kicked ass. To summarize, my three favorites were Red River Books, Black-Letter Books and Nerman's Books. Really truly satisfying and everywhere I went I had a little conversation piece in the sweet paperback I was carrying. Also, the locals at the wedding were impressed that I had taken the bus and gone off the beaten path a bit. A satisfying weekend all around, but extremely satisfying for the bibliophile.

(note, I have some more social and cultural comments about Winnipeg on my other blog if you're interested.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

41. The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The Watchmen cover picture

From the Wikipedia entry:

Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternate history of the United States where costumed adventurers are real and the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union; throughout the books, the Doomsday Clock is shown gradually ticking towards midnight. It tells the story of a group of past and present heroes and superheroes and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of their own. Watchmen depicts heroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings, and who—with one notable exception—lack anything immediately recognizable as accepted super powers.

I really won't be able to do a thorough analysis of this masterpiece in a blog post, but please allow me some observations and memories.

I first discovered the Watchmen in grade 9. I discovered it along with re-discovering comics in general. I went to my friend Jeff's backyard to hang and he and my other buddy of the Lantzville trio, Lantzvillager himself (currently of Mt. Benson Report fame) had gone to the comic store and come back with a bunch of cool-looking comics, bearing mature themes. I think Scout was there and Mister X, possibly even the first Dark Knight. This, I now realize, was the period when the comic book scene was getting re-born with all kinds of ill shit and somehow these two cottoned on to it (I'll have to ask them about what motivated them to go to the comic store). It started us on to years of serious collecting. These comics just looked different than the superhero stuff we were used to (and weren't all that interested in, though I had gone through a big phase of war comics a few years before).

One of the comics that was procured was Watchmen #4. It really looked different. The whole thing was, cover to cover, was "designed" and there were no advertisements. I didn't really get what was going on in that issue, but I was intrigued and we eventually ended up getting all of them. For whatever reason, the 11th and 12th issues (the last two) took forever to come out, almost a year I believe (which also happened with The Dark Knight #4; why?) and I remember feeling a bit disappointed with the conclusion. I think that year of waiting (and the awesomeness that came before) built up my expecations to unreasonable heights.

In college, I bought the collected graphic novel and read it again, but it wasn't with fresh eyes. This time, with the movie coming out and the references to it in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I really wanted Meezly to read it so I bought her a copy. While she was reading it, I kept wanting to read over her shoulder and realized that it had been so long that I had forgotten a lot of it (except of course for some of Rorschach's famous lines, which I'll never forget) and that reading it again could be a rewarding experience. It had been over 15 years.

This time, the ending was not a disappointment. As a collected whole, I don't think I'm being too pretentious when I call it a masterpiece. It's easy to look back at it through all the revisions the superhero has gone through in recent years and to see the way Moore deconstructed the superhero comic as being a bit obvious. But when it came out, the last major evolution of the superhero was Spiderman having human problems (and maybe Cerebus). Moore just blew the doors off the whole genre with the Watchmen. Really, where we are today, with movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are the direct result of The Watchmen (credit has to go here to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, but now I see clearly that Miller's simplistic righteousness is all encapsulated and critiqued in the character of Rorshach alone; Miller was only foreshadowing and possibly celebrating the neo-con fascism born out of Reagan's 80s, while Moore was doing so much more).

But it also stands on its own, as an exploration into power, ethics and history and as a moving tale of flawed humans who made some idealistic choices. You close this book and you want to talk about it. Who is the bad guy? What's the point of the pirate comic within a comic? I have many more specific things I'd like to talk about, but doing so would entail revelations that would spoil the reading for those of you who haven't yet done so. I will say that I think this is both a profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity and yet also a deeply caring one. My sense (and this could well be just my own worldview reflecting back at me through the shifting ethical complexity that is The Watchmen) is that Moore thinks were fucked, but that the human relations that go on between us are still powerful and important.

There are other things that make this book so great. The alternate history is fantastic, thoroughly thought out (with Nixon heading into his third term as president) on the historical level, but also the aesthetical. Small touches, like the weird helmets some people wear and the cigarettes with little spheres on the end make it seem different without being unrealistic and thus very plausible. All the little motifs that run throughout the book (like the blood stain on the smiley face, the shadow of the two people embracing) serve to lock all the plotines together like little hasps and bolts, while underlining the themes (a tear, love in the shadow of atrocity). They are also why The Watchmen is a comic book. It does things that can't be done in any other narrative medium. Dave Gibbons, the artist, put a lot of these touches in on his own, unbeknownst to Moore. Finally, while there isn't a lot of action, The Watchmen still has some of the most badass moments in comics, that single frame of Dr. Manhattan taking out some heisters still gives me a little shiver (not to mention the one of him in Viet Nam). And Rorschach. I mean, come on. I leave you with this in the hopes that it inspires you to go out and read The Watchmen ASAP.

None of you understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

40. Warriors: The New Prophecy: Book 1: Midnight by Erin Hunter

Warriors Book 1 pictureI was gripped by some insane frenzy while in California and purchased several new "trade paperbacks", including this first book of a series of cat fantasy books for young readers. I'm a big fan of cats and fantasy and had been curious about these when I'd seen them on the shelf, but they are so clearly commercialized from the start and there are so many of them, that I had never planned on actually reading them. But somehow I decided to take the plunge. I got #1, but it wasn't until I was about a quarter of the way through and totally mixed up about the characters, that I figured out this was the first book of the second series! This is why you shouldn't buy books like this on the spur of the moment! Let that be a warning to you, my friends.

This is the kind of book that has 2 maps (one from the cats' perspective and one from the humans), including logos for each clan, as well as several pages of characters, organized by clan and rank. I like that kind of stuff, but every single cat's name is a compound noun, like Tigerclaw or Whitepaw or Cedarhart or Russetfur and there are so many of them and they are thrown at you so quickly, without any real characterization that they just all become a blur. I finally started to distinguish most of the main protagonists about halfway through the book, when they had split off from the homelands to go on a quest. I think this wouldn't have been such a challenge if I had started from the first series (or if I were 11 years old and was into obsessively memorizing lists of facts, as I used to be).

For me, the appeal of fantasy cats is that it opens up the world around us and reveals it as a place of wonder and excitement. The cleft of a tree becomes a cozy shelter, a deserted shed becomes an ambush site, a tractor a devouring monster and so on. The best animal books capture this (Watership Down obviously, and the works of Colin Dunn of which I need to read more). These Warrior books, once you finally figure out who is who, are not bad and by the time I finished this book I was kind of tempted to get the next one. But ultimately, they are a bit thin for me and with so much else on deck, I probably will only pick these up if some confluence of events puts me with a lot of time and limited reading choice. But if I were stuck on a desert island with only the Warriors series, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either.

Friday, September 05, 2008

39. Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats pictureEverybody loves to hear about rats and it's surprising that a book of this nature wasn't attempted before. Basically, the author decided to sit in a New York City alley for a year and observe the rats. I am always intrigued by the idea of these kinds of books (Salt, Cod, etc.), the idea that you can read a single, relatively light volume and have a nice general overview of the subject. But I can rarely actually bring myself to read them. The subject matter here convinced me to actually take the plunge. Rats got a lot of fanfare when it came out and I've been looking for it for a while. In a fit of consumerist frenzy, I bought it and several other trade paperbacks new at Dark Carnival! I don't know what's come over me. Perhaps it's the giddiness as I seem to be potentially capable of achieving my goal this year.

However, this book also confirmed for me that my instinctual aversion towards these kinds of books was correct. I don't actually like them. There are two problems with these kinds of books. One is that it gives the author the opportunity to take all these little side trips into history and science and whatever, often trips that are tangentially related at best to the subject at hand. Two, is that they then attempt to tie it all up with some grand theme or symbol or something. I guess because they are writing for a general audience, they feel the need to have an overarching (or several) idea to replace the satisfaction of the narrative. It's very sloppy history and makes for distracted reading.

My understanding of Rats was that it was about the guy sitting in the alley, observing and getting to know the rats. But actually only about a quarter of the entire text covers that. He describes the basic behaviour of the rat as science understands it in the beginning chapter and we learn nothing more after that. I was hoping for a profound examination of their lives in this alley. I wanted him to get to know specific rats, to describe all their activities, maybe following them everywhere, eventually even into their lair. There is none of that. He basically watches them in the alley a few times and then all of a sudden launches into a history of the guy who started the garbageman's union, or the guy who was responsible for some riots in the American Revolution. Some of the asides are interesting and entertaining, particularly the ones where he meets exterminators and other rat experts. But overall you get the feeling he never really committed properly to being in the alley and ended up padding his book with all kinds of other irrelevant material.

There are some nice little rat stories in here and one of his points is that everyone has one, but you could find those on the internet. So, yes, I was let down from this book and wouldn't recommend it.

But I will share one of my rat stories with you! I was at a rooftop party one summer on the Lower East Side. After it wound down, several of us hung around and we ended up just leaning over the roof, talking and drinking. It was at least 3 in the morning. We started to see some rats walking around on the deserted street below. After paying attention, we realized that it was teeming with rats, and some really massive ones. They would go in and out of doors, gutters, whatever. We spent about an hour oohing and aahing, ("hey look at that massive one by the car!"). Eventually, we decided to break it up and head home and that's when we all realized we were going to have to go out through that street! We decided to do it as a team, making a lot of noise and sticking together until we got to a less isolated street. We survived but that moment of realization was a pretty funny one. We were genuinely scared.

Monday, September 01, 2008

38. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao picture
I had read a couple of Junot Diaz's short stories in the New Yorker, but his Pulitzer Prize winning novel had completely slipped under my radar until my sister told me about it and then brought me a copy. Thanks, sis, because this is a fantastic book, easily the best book of 2008. Perhaps more significant for me than just its qualities as a novel, it also signals a new beachhead in the cultural invasion of geeks into the mainstream. Diaz is one of us, it seems!

The titular character is the main character and it is around his life that the book is built. He's a rarity, a Dominican nerd, an extreme one at that. But the novel tells the story of his entire family and the history of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century that eventually pushed them to America. We learn about his mother, his great-aunt (who raised his mother when her parents were killed by the Trujillo regime), his sister, his grandparents and a few other interesting characters. It's a rich, entertaining tale, made even more complex by the gradual revelation of the identity of the narrator. Actually, in its structure, it is not dissimilar to David Chariandy's Soucouyant (which I read recently), where a situation in the present-day Americas is slowly peeled back to reveal the complex colonial layers underneath.

But the voice here is so much different. So alive! Diaz uses all kinds of ghetto slang, several forms of spanish and spanglish and a hardcore nerd lexicon the likes of which you can barely find online these days, let alone in a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. He drops obscure game references, uses hit dice (not just hit points!) to refer to the injuries someone takes after a beating from the Dominican secret police, refers to John Christopher, even! Most impressive. While there was a lot of the spanish I didn't know, for most people there is probably just as much, if not more, nerdly vocabulary that would be completely foreign to them.

I'm not going to go into it much more than this beyond saying that I read the entire book in a day on a long flight from the west coast, laughed out loud several times, even once when I couldn't stop and I think the people around me in the waiting gate thought I was a little crazy. It's an amazing book and if it is to be written about anymore, it should be done properly, which I'm not prepared to do. There is a podcast here where Diaz says some really interesting things about the book, which I recommend you should listen to when you have finished it, if you are interested. Otherwise, just get this book and read it

Sunday, August 31, 2008

37. Spy Ship by Tom Keene with Brian Haynes

Spy Ship pictureI picked this book up from the same street vendor in Toronto who sold me Scapa Ferry and I really hemmed and hawed over it. On the one hand, the cover looked cool, just from the period I like (the height of Desmond Bagley's popularity). On the other, it takes place in the cold war and seemed to have a lot of military and espionage themes, which I am not so interested in (I don't mind the period, but I like the focus to be on adventure). Also, I was worried the whole thing would take place aboard some military ship. After reading it, I'm glad to say I made the right choice. Yes, the story is definitely in the context of the cold war, but the ship is sunk right at the beginning (it is the catalyst that starts the story) and the bulk of the narrative is about a plucky young reporter (whose father died on the ship) trying to find out what happened.

The story is based on the intelligence war that took place in the North Sea between the Russians and the west. Along the frontier off the shores of Norway Russian subs and American and British ships would play games of cat and mouse, each trying to read data off the other. The set-up for spy ship is that the British were secretly putting scanning equipment aboard long-range commercial fishing vessels, unbeknownst to even most of the crew, thus putting them in danger. When one of them gets blown up, the government has to cover it up.

There's lots of cool stuff in this book. The aristocrats who run the shadier parts of the government and the darker, amoral men who run the even shadier parts under them are the badguys. There is a really scary ex-military guy who has a carte blanche to clean up problems. The fishermen and their world is portrayed vividly and with compassion and there are some great fight scenes. The story itself had some very good twists and the final reveal of what actually happened surprised me. All in all, a pretty good read.

I imagine this was the kind of thriller that was read by businessman on the train on their way to the city when it first came out, but has since faded into obscurity. There even was a British mini-series made of it, which might be worth checking out if it ever shows up again (that's the kind of shit that we should be able to find on late night tv, but no).

Friday, August 29, 2008

36. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson

Brain Wave pictureAll this classic science fiction reading going on over at Buzby's Life got me motivated to pick up this old paperback I've had sitting on my on-deck shelf for quite some time. Brain Wave is classic golden age science fiction in the most speculative vein. What would happen if everybody in the world suddenly became super-intelligent? This question is answered in an interesting and entertaining manner, for the most part. It is burdened slightly by some of the psychological assumptions of the period and some stilted overly theoretical dialogue (external and internal)

"God!" Corinth's fists doubled. (If we could only learn more about ourselves! If we had a workable psychiatry!)

but those are classical tropes of the genre and did not overwhelm the book. As a bonus, on the plus side, there also was a really great animal-oriented side story that really pushed my buttons.

There are a few stories going on, but the principal narrative follows a young physicist and his happily homey wife. When the intelligence hits, which is the result of the earth passing out of a neuron-suppressing field it had been in for millenia, the world goes through a tremendous upheaval. Though people become more intelligent, they don't get any wiser and the same prejudices and fears that dominate their personalities remain intact. Ultimately, however, reason bears out. But the process to get there involves uprisings, a breakdown of the economic and political system, a lot of people going insane and all kinds of other mayhem that is quite fun to read about.

After the survivors manage to get past all this, we move into the more speculative part, where the humans reach for the stars and start figuring out how they are going to live. The human part of the story concerns the physicist and his wife. She can't handle the new intelligence and starts becoming more and more neurotic and depressive. A certain part of our humanity is lost with the intelligence and some people, Poul posits, can't handle this. Those who are used to looking outward and thinking hard and deeply about external subjects, e.g. scientists, were better equipped seems to be his argument. The dated part is that the latter group in the book is almost all men and the former represented by the wife. It's still an interesting idea and he does a good job of postulating what might happen.

The really cool side story, though, for me is about a simpleton farmhand. At the beginning of the book, he is mentally deficient, but strong and kept on the farm and basically adopted by its kindly owner. He's not allowed to drive, for instance. But when the change comes, he too starts to become intelligent. Only because he was behind to begin with, he only reaches up to a normal IQ. Everybody else is in super brain world and basically bail on the farm. He is left with the animals, who have also become more intelligent and thus extremely dangerous. Fortunately, he has an awesome dog with him, who remains man's best friend. The pigs cause the first problems, escaping and then hiding in the forest making attacks on the grain. Then the bull. It finally reaches a crisis point when he returns from town (the first time he'd left the farm since the change) and gets ambushed. Another bull takes the truck out and his faithful dog is trapped, wounded, on the roof.

All seems lost when there is suddenly a shotgun rings out. It's the calvary. In the form of two chimpanzees riding an elephant who had escaped from the zoo! (He'd been warned about the zoo breakout when he went to town.) After the chimps and the elephant take out the bull and chase away the pigs, there is a nervous moment when the farmhand isn't sure about their intentions. Then the chimp approaches him and tugs on his jacket. The chimps can't handle the northeasterly climate and need his help to survive outside the protected environment of the zoo. An alliance is made and the chimps and the elephant join him to run the farm! Most awesome. I love shit like that.

His farm ends becoming what is one of many "moron communes" (really, that's what they call them), places for the non-super brainy humans to live. This is an important part of the speculation, actually, as the two societies ultimately separate, with the smart ones heading off planet to become custodians of the universe.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

35. Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge

Dark Harvest pictureExcept for Stepen King, I was never a huge fan of horror. But in recent years, with the influence of Meezly, Fantasia and other friends, I'm getting more and more exposed to it. One of those friends, Jocelyn, whom I met through gaming, is quite into it. He ran a very fun Unknown Armies, (which would some would say is the RPG that epitomizes contemporary horror) campaign that I played in and he lent me Dark Harvest. I have no idea how Norman Partridge came onto his radar, because I've never heard of him before, but if this book is indicative of his skill and style, he's good.

Dark Harvest is a tight little read. It's about a small, isolated midwestern town in the early '60s. Every year, since as long as anyone can remember, the tradition is to lock up all the boys of the ages of 15, 16 and 17 years old for the three days before Halloween and starving them. They are then released on Halloween night, while the rest of the town locks itself away (except for those left to guard the food sources). The boys' goal is then to hunt down and kill a living Jack-o-lantern before it enters the town church. The boy who does this is allowed to leave town and his parents get a new house and a car. I've already told you too much, though most of this is laid out in the first few chapters. It's just that the unfolding of the story is a big part of the fun of this book. Don't worry, though, as there is a lot more to be revealed and I found the revelations to be quite delicious.

It's a grim, brutal tale. The town is closed and scary. The kind of place anyone would want to get away from. But nobody can in the way many people don't get out of a small town. But here it is even more sinister than that. What I particularly enjoyed was the way the plot unfolds. Partridge doesn't hold back any secrets in order to artificially maintain suspense. He's got such a great set-up that he doesn't need to. Secrets revealed just lead to more conflict and greater connection to the plot and the protagonists, making you want to turn the pages. It's a dark tale and he doesn't pull any punches, but it's not unnecessarily brutal or sadistic, a rare combination. Furthermore, it's all story, one that keeps moving forward, another thing that is hard to pull off.

It's a short read, really almost a novella. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

34. The Horror of the Heights and other stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dark Harvest pictureI have to admit that I didn't read all of this book in 2008, and in doing so, reveal a little strategy I use to give me a slight boost towards reaching the goal of 50 books a year. I don't like buying books of short stories, even if I am a fan of the author, because I can rarely get through them. Every now and then, in the case of great authors (such as Doyle and Howard), I can not resist. My trick is that in between every book that I finish, if I don't immediately go on to another novel, I'll read a short story or two. Eventually, I'll complete the entire collection and get to add it to my list. Such was the case with Howard's Blood of the Gods as well as today's review, a fun little collection revealing Doyle's early interesting in mysticism and the supernatural.

I got this book through a bit of serendipity. I went to S.W. Welch's, a great little bookstore and a Montreal landmark not too far from my house. It used to be right on The Main, across the street from Schwartz's, but the owner, in a savvy move, found a new place in the growing Mile End neighbourhood just before they started a two-year construction project on St. Laurent that killed several businesses, including the maternal clothing store that replaced the old Welches. I sold some books and after, noticed this book on the feature table and said "Oh, I'd like to throw that in," or words to that effect. I had meant that I wanted to buy it and have him take the difference out of the cash he was giving me. The owner thought I was bargaining and said "sure" giving it to me for free! It was only 7 bucks, but I felt like it was a sign of respect (probably my own fantastic imagination, that) and a cool move by the Mr. Welch himself. I do go in there and chat with him and the other employees on a semi-regular basis. He knows his stuff and the other employees are quite cool (including the hilarious and talented Howard Chackowicz of Wiretap fame). A good used bookstore. Visit it if you come to Montreal.

The Horror of the Heights are all on the subject of the supernatural, written in Doyle's rich and evocative Victorian language. He's not the tightest of writers from this period, but he captures the comfortable and slightly wry British mentality of that period well. I always love passages like these:

Hastie was a good fellow, but he was rough, strong-fibered, with no imagination or sympathy. He could not tolerate departures from what he looked upon as the model type of manlinesss. If a man could not be measured by a public-school standard, then he was beyond the pale with Hastie. Like so many who are themselves robust, he was apt to confuse the constitution with the character, to ascribe to want of principle what was really a want of circulation.


There was one little indulgence which Abercrombie Smith always allowed himself, however closely his work might press upon him. Twice a week, on the Tuesday and the Friday, it was his invariable custom to walk over to Farlingfod, the residence of the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, situated about a mile and a half out of Oxford. Peterson had been a close friend of Smith's elder brother Francis, and as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.

How that makes me long for a brisk walk upon the moors!

It saddens me that in his later years, Doyle got way into the whole mysticism and spiritualism phenomenon that made its rounds among the upper classes at that time. He engaged in some public debates on this issue and got taken in by some charlatans (whom they all were) and it is a smudge on his reputation. One would not think that the creator of the most rational detective of all time would succumb that kind of flim-flam. But he got rich and old.

These stories, from, I presume, his younger years, show a lighter and more entertaining interest in the subject. The intent is to thrill, not to convince. They seem rather light in comparison to contemporary horror, but they don't lack imagination or impact. There is often a real sense of fear and dread in these stories.

It's a nice volume, but I wish they would have shown the original source and dates of the stories. I imagine they were mostly published in the Strand, where all the Sherlock Holmes stories were published. It would be nice to know how they fit into the chronology of his more famous work.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

33. Soucouyant by David Chariandy

Soucouyant pictureCanLit time people! My boss passed me down this book while we were working together in Vancouver. Normally, I have a hard time reading these kinds of books, but it had a glossy cover and nice large margins, so I figured I could handle it. It's the story of a young black man in Ontario dealing with his mother's dementia. You can see why I might have normally hesitated! Sometimes, though, when someone random lends me a book, I'm quite motivated to read it. Can't explain it, but there it is.

It actually is quite a good book, very moving and touches upon a lot of things that I saw in my own life. I think I am more or less a contemporary of the author. I certainly didn't experience the things he did, but I saw it going on around me in my own Canadian small town. It's written so that the reader starts out pretty much in the dark. Basically all you know is that the author is of Caribbean descent, but was born in Canada, had left his mother alone in her dementia and then out of guilt or something came back. There is a nurse or assistant there who helps out, but her role and legitimacy aren't totally clear and she treats the author with a lot of contempt, possibly because he abandoned his mother.

What makes this book so successful is that there is actually a very complex story behind the situation at the beginning of the book. As the story moves forward, the backstory is slowly revealed. We learn about how his mother first came to Canada (and it's pretty harrowing; a lone, black woman in small town Ontario in the 50s), how she met his father (of Indian descent), the father's struggles to keep jobs in the factories that are laying people off, the author and his brother's struggles at school and in the town (not just being black, but having their mom be the town crazy person) and the mother's descent into dementia. It goes even deeper than that, revealing who the girl is who is helping the mom and the mom and her mother's story on the islands. It ends up being a rich and moving tapestry and a very satisfying read.

My only complaint is there is some "poetic" writing in there, little phrases of imagery, sometimes even incomplete sentences. I find these annoying. You can just see some literature professor lecturing on how the "bitter" orange peels staining the piece of paper in the kitchen garbage can represents the stain of colonialism or something like that. Fortunately, those little snippets are rare and most of the rest of the book is solid, clear writing.

I believe this book falls under the heading of "Post-Colonial Literature". Ultimately, it's about how the installation of an army base in the author's family's home island uprooted the people there, removed them from their traditional livelihoods and forced them to adapt to other means of survival (such as prostitution). This in turn led to opportunities or at least the choice to emigrate which led to strangers in strange new lands and the damage that can do to the people who lack the psychological resources to survive such changes. It all shakes out in the wash and here we are today, with a much richer, more complex and aware society (though with plenty of prejudices still remaining) so that the son of such a chain of events can be a successful author and professor at a good Canadian University. But the path there is a painful one and this book illustrates that masterfully.

I won't be leaping back into post-colonial canlit soon (there just isn't enough overall ass-kicking for my tastes), but this was a good little side trip. If you are still single and looking to pick up chicks in hipster cafés in liberal parts of town, you could do a lot worse than sit there with Soucouyant in your hands and you'd have a good read while you are at it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

32. Hilmar and Odette by Eric Koch

Hilmar and Odette pictureThis was sitting on my friend's desk when I was crashing at his secret mountain getaway, nursing a sprained ankle and moping regretfully about the plastering I wasn't able to do. The premise intrigued me. Plus, it was fairly large in print with wide margins, so I knew I could get through it before I left.

The author discovered that there was an illegitimate child on each side of his Jewish German family, both of whom had grown up in Nazi Germany. They had each been given up for adoption into non-Jewish families. One was identified as being at least half-Jewish (Hilmar, the boy) and the other wasn't (Odette, the woman). Koch, upon discovering this, tracked them back and tried to find out as much as he could about their two stories. Hilmar lived a difficult life, not being able to fight for health reasons and being identified as a half-Jew. He struggled with an impoverished and crazed adoptive mother (the one who turned him in initially) and the increasingly desperate situation around him until he finally ended up in the concentration camp. He actually survived until the arrival of the American forces, but died in a military hospital a few days later he was so sick and malnourished. Odette, on the other hand, never even knew she was Jewish and ended up marrying relatively high into Nazi society. She came out unscathed and even rubbed shoulders with high-ranking members of Goebbel's propaganda team at some social events.

Both of their stories are fascinating and I'm sure there are thousands of others that are equally fascinating. That period was just so crazy and made more so by the extremity of it's culmination. We look back today and it seems hard to understand why young Hilmar didn't just take to the hills the first chance he had. But I believe that just underlines how crazy the situation was. Very few people in it could really believe how far it would go. This book wasn't great in the way it was written, but it did not fail to remind me of the enormity of Nazi Germany and that there really is no limit to human cruelty. It's something that most people seem to have already forgotten today in our wealthy, comfortable and relatively free society.

My complaint with the writing was that it is done in a breezy, almost conversational style. It communicated a certain lack of respect for the reader. I felt like he was writing it for his own family, which is fine in and of itself, but not so good when you are going for a general readership. That was mostly in the beginning and end parts. The main story itself was well told, so it's a minor complaint. The research and effort made to construct the story more than makes up for it. A quick and engaging read which, as I said, reminds us once again of a frighteningly recent period in our history.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

31. A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley

A Little Yellow Dog pictureI like Walter Mosley and grab his books when they are cheap (a quarter outside of Pulp Fiction in Vancouver) but I don't follow too closely or remember the exploits of his protagonist, Easy Rawlins.

In this one, he is trying to go straight, working as a custodian at a public school in LA. He comes in early and ends up having classroom sex with a sultry teacher who is in some kind of trouble. Easy has all kinds of romantic complications, but getting laid is not one of them. I'm never sure if this is supposed to reflect the genre and the culture or if he is just super attractive, but I never find these sex scenes that believable (though they are pretty enjoyable to read). The trouble expands, gets more complicated and obviously catches Easy. Bodies show up at the school. Suspicious cops and principals harrass and hover.

It's a quick, mostly enjoyable read. What I didn't enjoy so much is that characters kept coming in who were part of Easy Rawlin's great story arc and each one would get a page or two about everything that had happened to them up to that point. I don't mind that stuff so much but it kind of seemed a bit forced to me in this book.

In general, there is something unreal in Easy Rawlins' world. Mosley is supposed to be this authentic voice but I'm a bit suspicious. I like his world but I wonder if he is getting a bit distant from it's source. There is nothing wrong with that, because the characters are interesting and situations are rich, but it clashes a bit with expecations. I'm sort of talking around my complaint here and not being very direct. Is this a hard-boiled mystery? Is it about the black urban experience in the 60s? It's completely fair that it be about both, but somehow the combination of the elements from each works out to a whole that isn't entirely satisfying and seems somehow a bit unreal and thus distancing for the reader.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

30. The Little People by John Christopher

The Little People pictureI found two more John Christopher books at Pulp Fiction when I was in Vancouver, both first edition hardbacks for $7.95. Now that I think about it, that's actually a pretty good deal, when standard used paperbacks are going for $4.95 these days.

The Little People is from 196?, still part of Christopher's working period as an author but later into it. Though there is a slight deviation from form, it quite quickly assembles itself into a structure very similar to The Possessors, Sweeney's Island and the other books from this period. A group of flawed people (though in this case, there is only one englishmen; the rest are european, scottish and american) assemble together in a remote location and encounter weirdness. In this case, it is a remote Scottish castle, that a young, competent woman inherits. She decides to try and run it as an inn, emphasizing the remoteness.

The first half of the book describes the interesting collection of guests, the bitter and fighting american couple, their silent daughter, the guilt-ridden german husband and his jewish wife, the innkeeper's english fiancee who thinks her decision to run the inn is mad, the scottish hyper-catholic young lawyer who has a crush on the innkeeper. Christopher slowly lays out their back stories, while revealing small hints of weirdness in the lodge. Strange small things are sighted moving in the bog. Useful household items get stolen. The distant uncle who left her the place had spent most of his time locked in the now closed tower, where there was a collection of well-made dollhouses and small cages.

In the second half of the book, the little people are actually discovered, as is their history. I was a bit disappointed at first, because it all was revealed a bit quick. But I should have had some confidence in Christopher's ability to keep the reader guessing, as things get weird fast and suddenly it is very unclear who are the victims. As I've said, all of these psychological thrillers of John Christopher's have a similar setup. Where they differ is which aspect they fall on. Whereas in the Possessors, the fight for survival took primacy (the "thriller" aspect), here it is the effect the situation has on the people and their relationships that is emphasized (the "psychological" aspect).

The cover above is the hardback I found. Quite elegant and probably better catches the actual mood of the book. But check out the wacky cover below. I saw it in this blog here and though it really does not represent the story, it is truly awesome.

The Little People picture

29. The Scorpio Letters by Victor Canning

The Scorpio Letters pictureI found a great used bookstore in Vancouver (ABC books on W. Broadway near Granville, right by the bus stop). Whoever is buying books for this place knows their stuff. They had such a good and organized collection that I was drawn to some of the recommended or featured books. There was a stack of paperbacks by Victor Canning, that had cool looking covers, classic '70s and 80s British crime editions from houses like Pan. I grabbed the one with the bullet-holed aviator glasses on the cover and wasn't disappointed.

The Scorpio Letters starts out with a description of a well-dressed man in a richly decorated office in a villa somewhere on the coast of Italy. He is going through a series of files and writing a letter for each one. All the letters sealed and addressed, but then put into a single, larger envelope in which they are mailed to England. There, a working class Italian immigrant posts the letters. That middleman dies by accident with the letters still in his pocket. The police deliver the letters by hand to each of the recipients to find out what they can. Everyone denies they know anything about it and take the letters.

Enter our hero, a young, adventuresome British guy. Ruggedly handsome, good with his hands and with an independent streak, George Constantine is cut right out of the Desmond Bagley mold ("He was thirty, a big man, built like a full-back, sandy-haired with a sun-burnt, square, almost pugnacious face."). He is back in England, visiting his adoptive parents. It turns out his adoptive father is one of the letter recipients. He admits that he has been expertly blackmailed for over a decade, since a brief affair as a young man. He finally reveals this info because he believes the death of the letter-posting middleman means the end of the blackmail. Our hero suspects a more sophisticated operation and decides to follow up.

Trouble, of course, ensues. He meets an attractive young woman whose mother was also being blackmailed. The two of them bicker lightly, become attracted to each other and follow the trail of the letters through France to Italy.

Canning doesn't have the subtlety and depth of character that Gilbert can command, but the story is strong and moves forward well. He builds a cool criminal network and populates it with some interesting, realistic baddies. The hero relied on luck too many times to get out of deadly situations. I would have liked to have seen a bit more application of specific skill (which you do get with Bagley), but there is enough here that I'll definitely be checking out some more Victor Canning books. An excellent discovery.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

28. To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon

To Marry Medusa pictureThe only other Theodore Sturgeon book I read, The Dreaming Jewels, I really enjoyed, so I keep an eye out for his other work. There is a lot out there, but it seems the bulk of his work was short stories and novellas. It's hard to find actual novels by him, but To Marry Medusa was one (though it's almost a novella).

It's the story of a loser alcoholic whose mind gets invaded by an alien collective entity. This isn't just a single species either, but a conglomerate of civilizations all of which have been absorbed by single initiating species. Their home world was destroyed and so they travelled through space looking for a new host. However, they exist in a single, collective form and can't conceive of separation, so when they take over the drunk's mind, they have a hard time figuring out how humans work.

As you read the above narrative, chapters are interspersed with a whole bunch of different stories of people all over the planet: a little girl who gets separated from her family, an emotionally disturbed vandal, a prim old maid, etc. None have anything directly to do with the main alien story, at least at first.

For the first half, I felt a bit removed, especially with all the different, unconnected storylines. But Sturgeon has a plan and when it all comes together, it's actually quite cool. This is a classic science fiction book in that it seems to have come from a single idea or question: what would happen if all of humanity were to be suddenly, psychically collectivized? The answer, in the context of an attempted alien takeover, that Sturgeon provides is entertaining and insightful. Worth the read.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

27. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Darkly Dreaming Dexter picture
I'm really not a big fan of serial killers as a literary genre. The first few times it was okay, I guess, but they always risk the temptation of self-indulgent, titillating sexual sadism and they usually succumb to it. Even worse, though, is the power creep. In real life, serial killers are screwed-up losers who eventually get caught because they generally aren't that smart. In order to make a serial killer book last, you have to have one who is really hard to catch. Since the detective is usually someone who is super smart, you have to make a super smart serial killer. Eventually, you get into Jeffrey Deaver territory where the serial killer is the smartest guy in the world and a Casey Ryback level ex special forces guy. They are more badass than the goofiest Pierce Brosnan Bond villain. At that point, it's just stupid. Yet, for whatever reason, ever since the overrated Silence of the Lambs, the crime genre in print and in film is inundated with serial killers.

Despite my lack of interest in the sub-genre, I did give the first Dexter novel a try. I had watched the first season of the television series and had quite enjoyed the concept. If you're not familiar, Dexter is a sociopath who was trained by his adoptive cop father to satisfy his murderous urges by hunting and killing only criminals. It's a clever idea because you get the cool technique, but done by a good guy against other bad guys that you want to die. It's kind of a procedural vengeance situation. I didn't totally love the series because it didn't spend enough time on Dexter getting the baddies. Instead, there was a lot of unresolved soap opera stuff. It was decently done, but in this case, wasn't satisfying the potential that I had hoped for. The real deal-breaker for me (and the reason I didn't bother with season 2) was the portrayal of the female characters. They were to a woman shown to be constantly stupid and irrational, especially his sister.

So, anyways, back to the book at hand. It is original and entertaining. Dexter is haunted by a serial killer whose skill and artistry blows him away. He also has to help his sister improve her reputation on the force (even though she is stupid, shrill and has no sense of politics; she really shouldn't be promoted). I really wasn't too engaged in the story, because it lies heavily on the serial killer as artist angle, which is boring. And the portrayal of the sister was not much better than the show. However, Dexter himself is quite funny, in his ironic asides and his backstory is engaging. I think I would have gotten into it more if I hadn't seen the tv series, as then it would have been all new.

So in summary, an okay light read, but I wouldn't bother unless you are really into serial killers and want to see a new twist.