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.