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.