Wednesday, January 28, 2009

5. The Caves of Night by John Christopher

The Caves of Night pictureThough 2008 was the year dedicated to John Christopher, I will still read a book by him from time to time. He was prolific and I have a long way to go before I can say I've read most of his work. He's also just a really good and entertaining writer.

The Caves of Night was written immediately after his post-apocalyptic masterpiece No Blade of Grass. It's the story of a middle-aged couple who take their annual vacation in the Austrian countryside. The husband is an avid spelunker and many years before had discovered a cave system that was known to the locals but not to the caving community or tourists. They are regulars at a small inn and at the beginning of the book, meet a young newlywed couple on their honeymoon. This year, also, the Graf is returned from a Russian prison, where he had been held since the end of the war (the book takes place in the mid 50's). The Graf, Albrecht, is a local prince and landed gentry and owns a large estate and the rights to much of the countryside. He is a pleasant and charming man and invites the couple over for dinner, allowing the husband to freely explore the caves.

Relations develop between the two couples and Albrecht over the following days as they spend time hanging out together. The caving husband, though, spends most of his days in the cave, while his wife and the newlyweds go swimming and riding with Albrecht. He is a civilized, drained man, prematurely aged from his stay in the Russian prison who reveals early on that he has lost any real motivation for living. He spends his life, he claims, in lacklustre pursuit of minor pleasures. He also hints that he has given his life a time limit. In his pursuit of pleasure, he makes a move on the caver's wife. She takes it at first as just a pass he would give to any woman, but over time, she succumbs and something real does develop between them and she starts to have an affair. She is happily married to her husband for 16 years but the Graf somehow wakens up something in her that she didn't know she wanted.

As I've said before, almost all of Christopher's books deal with themes of adultery and male sexual anxiety. The protagonists are often males put into the passive position of having to accept some sexual transgression on the part of the wife (though transgression is not the best word as the woman are often passive victims themselves, either of sexual assault or their own passions; though their reactions are often portrayed as quite controlled and rational). In The Caves of Night, this theme is made central. At least the first half of the book follows the development of the affair between the wife and Albrecht.

Of course, they are always talking about everybody going into the caves together one day and they do so, squeezing through a smaller passage to see some other cave paintings. It is risky and the caver husband is warning everybody to not raise their voice and watch their step. You know the young newlywed couple is going to do something stupid and they do, bringing down the small passage that was their exit.

Now the two couples and the Graf are stuck in this cave system. Led by the competent caver husband (whose wife is cheating on him with one of the dudes he is leading), they try to go deeper into the system in the hopes that they can maybe find another exit, or hook up with a known cave system on the far side of the mountain. And thus the second half of the book is more of a caving adventure, with the tension of the affair constantly lurking.

Even though the majority of the book is more of a psychological exploration of an affair, it turned out to be a really enjoyable read for me. Christopher is really good at describing things. He brings out the beauty of nature in a few quick, evocative sentences. He also does a good job of making it clear in the reader's head where the character are when those things matter (such as trying to escape from a cave). The cave scenes are really gripping. I think I may have some significant fear of getting caught in a cave, because reading the parts where the passage really narrows made my stomach tense up in an unpleasant way. I had to read them really fast, which is a testimony to his writing as well.

Caves of Night is a "mature" novel. The conclusion in the cave takes up at least a third of the book and is truly gripping. But this story is more about marriage and love and hope. It's not the adventure book the cover claims. It does explore those themes in an interesting way and never sacrifices the narrative. All in all, another excellent novel by John Christopher.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

4. Zot! The Complete Black & White Collection

I'm an adult. As a kid and young man, in my involvements in various scenes and sub-cultures, I would always hear about past things or events of importance. I would maybe read about some famous, seminal show in a punk zine or a reference to some groundbreaking artist in the letters page a comic. Over time, I built up a pretty good knowledge of the history of these scenes before I was involved. But, I never experienced those things first hand. I was never actually there when it was going on. It was always the older dudes, like friends' older brothers or people you would meet at cons or shows, who had actually been there. They seemed so cool and I always felt somehow incomplete, possibly a bit of a faker, that I wasn't really there for these fundamental periods of growth in a sub-culture.

Reading this collection of Zot! made me realize that I am now one of those guys that was there. I was reading and collecting Zot! when it was actually coming out. I think I started a bit into the series, because I remember hunting around for back issues. But I also remember waiting for the next issue. I've still got them as well, boxed up somewhere in my parents' basement. I may even have Destroy! as I know I owned that at once, though I may have foolishly sold it or offloaded it at some point because it was too big. Scott McCloud is now very well known and respected (and rightly so) for his masterpiece Understanding Comics. But I was there with him, supporting him financially, back in the day when he was getting started with Zot! Kind of cool, but it also makes me feel a bit old. Will I ever be able to explain how this is cool to the next generations?

It was the covers that most attracted me to Zot!. They are so lively and colourful. I also loved Scott McCloud's clean lines. I found the stories to be engaging, but a bit light. At that age, I was always looking for something real and hard and the action in Zot! was always more cartoony. It was fun and creative (often wildly so), but I was just too young to appreciate PG things. Now that extreme ultra-violence and true toughness is no longer denied to me, I've learned to appreciate softer stuff for its own intrinsic qualities.

The storyline in Zot! really evolves. The basic premise is a teenage girl, Jenny, who meets a guy from another dimension. He is a super-positive, invincible super lad from a world of clean high technology and general mellowness. The badguys there are over-the-top villains whose occassional exuberant presence is more of an excuse for Zot! to have some fun and for the citizens to watch him doing so and have fun themselves rather than ever being a real threat. The early episodes concentrated on Zot battling the badguys, but the real theme was the difference between our earth and Zot's, especially as seen through the earth girl's eyes. This theme became more and more central until the final 8 issues, where Zot becomes stranded on earth and the whole series focuses on the lives of Jenny and her friends.

I don't remember my impressions too well when I was reading them at the time. I think they just flowed one after the other. I was reading so many comics back then that I didn't really take the time to scrutinize them critically. I just kept reading them if I liked them. Re-reading them now, along with Scott McCloud's commentaries after each story arc, I see how he was really struggling against the genre Zot! was constructed around. He wanted to tell stories about real people and their real life problems but he had this super boy from a perfect world constantly hanging around. I found that he actually works really well as a foil to help emphasize the themes of imperfection and frustration in our own world. Sometimes, the real world stories get a bit maudlin and self-involved (they are all teenagers after all), so it's also nice to have a bit of superhero and otherworldly action every now and then.

The later stories that take place on earth center around Jenny and her friends, who are the geeks and misfits of their high school. There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle pride in their depiction. There is a two-part issue that tackles homosexuality and homophobia that was quite advanced for its time. I just like the depiction of the various geeks and the scenes of them playing their homemade roleplaying game are really great. I wish he had spent a bit more time on some of the side characters from the geek group, as they were quite intriguing. There was one fat, asian kid who was super smart but always got D's. It's revealed in passing that he is secretly gay and that it is his goal to always get exactly D's because getting straight A's would be too easy for him. I would have liked to have seen his character explored more.

Zot! is a true classic from the Black & White explosion era of comics, when they took their first steps to moving out of the superhero realm. I was really grateful to be able to reread them all together and in order. There are many other great comics from that period that deserved to be rescued and repackaged in a beautiful format, with the author's comments, but not all of the artists and writers of that period achieved the success of McCloud.

If you want to get a taste of the Zot! comic, you can read an online one that McCloud did. He is experimenting here with online comics (it's entirely vertical), which is cool in and of itself, but the story captures the feeling and energy of the original Zot! stories that were more focused on Zot! saving his planet. Check out "Hearts and Minds" here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

3. Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar

Fire Will Freeze pictureI added Margaret Millar's name to the little piece of paper I keep in my wallet with books and authors I'm searching for thanks to this favourable review of The Iron Gates in Vintage Hardboiled Reads. It was the Iron Gates that I was specifically looking for because it takes place in Vancouver. But I was equally happy to find Fire Will Freeze, with the front cover blurb "Stranded in an eerie, isolated château in Québec, a most unusual heroine encounters unexpected romance... and a murderer."

This is one of the first books in a while that grabbed me from the first few pages. I'm a lazy-minded person and often have to force myself to concentrate on a novel for a while before I get into it. Fire Will Freeze takes place in the early '40s on a bus heading north to a ski lodge. The "action" is all in the passengers' heads, particularly one very nosy old maid (of 35!) as she eavesdrops on the people around her. Her inner dialogue is so sharp, critical and lively. Right away, there are all these little conflicts and attitudes going on around her (and you the reader) that suck you right in. It's surprisingly frank about sex as well. If not for the clothes and certain turns of phrase, the desires and suppositions that go on in people's heads could easily take place today. I guess because most of our depictions of this period is from the movies, restricted as they were by the Hayes code, we have an exaggeratedly chaste vision of that time.

Nobody on the bus really seems all that happy to be going to the ski lodge. On top of it, there is a blizzard and they are an hour late. There is a lot of grumbling that gets worse when the driver stops the bus to re-attach a chain and then doesn't come back. After a lot of in-fighting and mishaps, the group finally makes it to a must old lodge, housing only a crazy lady and her stern nurse. They are not very welcoming and things get weird fast. Cats are murdered, people disappear, are not what they seem. It's all so crazy that I had trouble believing any of it could make sense, but it all actually does (though I defy any reader to even get a rough grasp on the mystery before the first two-thirds are done). There are a lot of characters to keep track of. I would have liked one of those diagrams like they had on the old Key mystery pulp paperbacks. But it's still fun as their true natures are slowly revealed and you definitely want to find out what's behind the mystery.

The aforementioned old maid is ostensibly the heroine of the story, as the majority of the book is seen from her perspective and she is the most competent and honest of the bunch. But even she isn't all that impressive so you can imagine how the rest appear. There is the rich, fat, lazy old lady and her drunken, weak-minded poet protégé. The spoiled brat. The slutty dancer who refuses to take responsibility. The feckless tycoon father and his headstrong daughter (who is portrayed as quite competent, but completely unsympathetic, almost sociopathic). Her portrayal of the characters is as critical and removed and possibly more scathing than those of John Christopher. The set-up itself, though in a North American context, reminded a lot of Christopher: put a bunch of people in a mysterious, stressful situation so you can expose their weakness of character. Millar does this well and though her observations are perhaps more abrupt and cutting, she seems to love their foibles rather than weary in quiet despair as Christopher does.

It's an imperfect book because the mystery and the personalities compete for your attention in the middle of the book. It loses some of its momentum and focus because of this. It is lively and entertaining nonetheless. The characters are rich and intriguing and some pretty good shocks go down. You can tell that Millar is a tough, critical-thinking person who didn't pull any punches. I want that from my mystery atuhors. Her books today appear hard to find and she will definitely be on my list.

She is actually quite well known to mystery fans as one half of one of the more successful mystery writer couples, the other half being Ross Macdonald. There is a great article here about their lives and careers together. In some ways, she was more succesful as a writer, but the endurance of Travis McGee has kept his name around longer than hers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2. Box 100 by Frank Leonard

Box 100 pictureThis was an obscure but intriguing little title I found in a pile of books in one of the used book stores I visited last year in Winnipeg. I can't remember the name right now, but according to the groom, the owner ran the bookstore for decades and at some point he won the lottery. He just kept the store going without any real concern for profit. It's a bit of a mess, but a glorious mess with all kinds of fun media to search through, like comics, videotapes, videogames and other random, dusty things in a big sprawling warehouse structure.

The cover of Box 100 suggests that it is a detective thriller ("One rookie gumshoe against a million dollar ghetto racket!"), which it sort of is, but it's also more of an exploration into the reality of the welfare system in early '70s New York. I could find absolutely no information on this book or the author on the web, other than that it was an Edgar nominee for Best First Novel. I suspect that the author may have actually worked for the welfare department. He knows the details of the structure (which are pretty complex) and also seems to have a burning desire to expose how horrible it was.

The gist of the story is a slacker guy who gets a job working for a special department of investigations for the city, a department that is ultimately pretty weak but kept alive because it makes for good press. Citizens can send their complaints or accusations to Box 100. The narrator's first letter is an accusation of a neighbour who is pretending she lost her welfare cheque and then cashing it twice. This starts the hero on a revealing investigation of all the petty scams and the poor, wretched people who try to survive by pulling them off. Though their "crimes" are pretty apparent and some are even persecuted, it's clear that the author is more concerned with demonstrating the crimes of the system and he does a pretty good job of this.

At some point, though, as the reader, you start to ask yourself, "where's the big scam?" It does come at the last minute and it's preposterous, though it is connected to the earlier crimes he investigated. The lack of strong purpose in the book makes it ultimately a bit disjointed. However, I probably wouldn't have read an exploration of the victims of the welfare system in the '70s and I suspect this book, wrapped in the trappings of a thriller, gave me a pretty good look at it. So I don't regret reading it and am kind of psyched to have found something so obscure even the internet doesn't yet know about it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

1. The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda pictureMy eye was drawn to this attractive new paperback edition from Penguin (part of a Penguin Set of Classic Boys' Adventures, all of which look really appealling). The Prisoner of Zenda is a classic swashbuckler, written in 1894 and responsible for inspiring a genre all its own and many adaptatiions. It's the story of young English aristocrat Rudolf Rassendyl, who has inherited enough money and class training (riding, shooting, fencing) to spend the rest of his life gallavanting about Europe and living a life of wealthy leisure. He's not lazy, though, just unfocused.

It turns out he is also indirectly descended from the royalty of small European country Ruritania and bears the flaming red hair that defines that line. He decides, after the moralistic urging of his sister-in-law to do something more virtuous with his life, to visit Ruritania. He happens to arrive the week before the coronation of the new king and actually runs into him in the forest near the inn where he is staying. And lo and behold he is the spitting image of the king. They decide to hang out and the king reveals himself to be quite a partyer. They get so drunk, that the king is incapable of waking up the next day to make it to the coronation. Rudolf is convinced to impersonate him for this important but rote ceremony, which he does so succesfully. When he comes back, however, he and the king's closest advisors find the king kidnapped by Black Michael, the half-brother who would be king. Now Rudolf is flung headlong into a dilemma where his wit and skills will be tested to the utmost.

here is, of course, romance in the mix as well, as Princess Flavia, who was betrothed to the king but doesn't really like him, finds the new king somehow different, more appealling. And of course Black Michael wants Flavia for himself.

I know it sounds like I'm giving a lot way, but all this takes place in the first two chapters. It's pretty heady and rousing stuff. All the elements of a swashbuckling adventure, led by a droll but responsible english gentleman. There is one weird note and that is the character of Rupert Hentzau, a sort of mercenary-for-hire in Black Michael's retinue. He shares a similar spirit as the protagonist, but in the service of evil rather than good. They have several confrontations and at times Rudolf the hero seems more enamoured with Rupert than Princes Flavia. "Thus he vanished - reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome and debonair, vile and unconquered." Those British arisocrats, you never now.

A great way to start the year. I'm happy to learn there is a sequel. If it falls into my hands in the future, I'll be psyched.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Donald Westlake, dead at 75

Donald Westlake picture


Here's the sad news.

One of my favorite all-time writers and the creator of Parker, under the pseudonym Richard Stark. If you haven't read the early Parker books, you'd better start immediately.

Rest in peace and thank you.