Thursday, September 30, 2010

43. Three-Ten to Yuma and other stories by Elmore Leonard

If you want a good read with a strong moral backbone that will give you some feeling of righteous satisfaction, pick up any Elmore Leonard western. I snagged a bunch of his westerns last year and this sat on my on-deck shelf for a while before I finally took it with me on my trip to Amsterdam, thinking it would make for great plane reading. I had held off mainly because it was short stories and I tend not to like reading one after the other when I am at home. I was right about this being a great travel book, because I devoured it and even convinced my wife to read one of the stories (Jugged, in which a young kid gets thrown into a cell with a serious criminal), which she quite enjoyed.

Each of these stories was a little snippet of life in Elmore Leonard's wild west, where scary violent men are everywhere but someone with a bit of grit and courage and the will to do what they think is the right thing can sometimes just win out. Skills and training are also important here, almost to a heroic level, where one man can size up another and know he is an expert by how still he is. Really good stuff.

Monday, September 27, 2010

42. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

I picked up this book in the Eastern Townships at an antique shop among a mostly complete collection of Airmont Classics paperbacks. It was a beautiful collection in great shape, but this was the only one that interested me so I took it out from its brethren. It had been there for quite a while and I doubt a collector was going to pick up the entire thing. I hope not because I left the book at a bed & breakfast in Amsterdam for some other lucky reader to find.

As a kid I read and was read to Kidnapped and Treasure Island and loved them. The Black Arrow is an adventure that takes place during the War of the Roses. The hero is Richard Shelton, a young knight under the rapacious and immoral knight Sir Daniel Bracklely, who unbeknownst to Shelton was responsible for the murder of his father. The politics are confusing at first (especially since everybody keeps changing sides) and the language is written in I guess what is a 19th century american interpretation of 16th century British country jargon. It's very rich and fun to read, but much slower to read than what we are used to today. It makes me wonder if Kidnapped and Treasure Island are written in a more straightforward manner, because I remember having no trouble as a youth parsing the dialogue. It took me about a third of the book before I really caught the rhythm and style of the language, but then I really got into it. It makes for fun reading and also demonstrates how much we have lost in today's Orwellian and Strunk & Whitian straightforward style.

It really is a rip-roaring adventure with a moving romance at its heart. There is lots of great bow & arrow action, excellent woodsman skills and intriguing political machinations. This is just rock solid stuff that many of today's writers (especially of action screenplays) could benefit from. It's also motivated me to look up Kidnapped and Treasure Island and re-read them as an adult.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

41. Deluge by Richard Doyle

I picked this one up on a whim at S.W. Welch who was having a dollar sale. There were a few '70s disaster thrillers, many of them with an environmental theme, but this one had the best cover. I'm a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels, so I should also like the disaster genre, but for some reason I'm wary. I guess I feel like the latter just don't take it far enough, but I could be basing that on my experience with the classic disaster movies of the 70s (Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Swarm, etc.). I went through a phase of watching them and always found them enjoyable, but they were ultimately so soft and lame in the way that most '70s media was. As you can see, though, the cover here seems to take the flooding pretty over the top and that was enough to sell me on it.

It was a good choice. Deluge is a solid, entertaining disaster thriller in the mold of Desmond Bagley. Even better, it doesn't pull any punches. The main theme of the book is the inability of modern society to mobilize and prepare itself against potential disasters, with the short-term perspective of selfish politicians being the main individuals responsible. The protagonist is an engineer responsible for management of the Thames. Right at the beginning of the book, his project to put in a large breakwater at the head of the river is blocked by a municipal politician looking to get favour with a cost-conscious national government. That politician is a very nice character to hate and becomes especially hateful when he takes the call of the engineer's wife and tells her that the storm is already dying down and there is no reason for her not to go into the lower part of the city to her artist studio.

The first third of the book is a procedural build-up, describing in detail how the various municipal bodies work to inform and prepare the population against the potential of the Thames breaking its banks. They base their decisions on a massive storm in the north and growing reports of flooding, but because communications are inconsistent (due to the severity of the storm), they don't get the real data on how much the water has risen until it is too late.

At that point, the novel has already established several locations, including a subsidized apartment building, a metro train (with the hero's wife on board), a hospital, a construction site where a homeless man has gotten trapped and so on. The novel is well-paced and though the procedural section gets a bit confusing, you are pretty much caught up in the tension. It moves forward like the inevitable flood waters, if you will allow me the obvious metaphor.

When the flood finally comes, it really is some satisfying disaster porn. Shit gets seriously destroyed and tons of characters that you kind of thought Doyle was taking time on because they would eventually get rescued actually end up getting totally killed. One after the other. It's quite awesome. They recently made a movie out of this and it's a shame because it sounds like it totally sucked. It would make a great movie and you could do it today with all the CGI. But you would need some decent writers and smart producers and it doesn't sound like that was the case. Too bad.

In any case, a really enjoyable read and it has awakened me to the potential of the '70s disaster genre in written form. I'll have to try another one, perhaps even dare to read an American author.

40. A Rocket for the Toff by John Creasey

I'm a fan of old-time radio (or OTR as it is known among aficionados) and the Radio Detective Story Hour is a pretty good podcast to get a nice sampling of OTR shows. They played a 6-part BBC series called Inspector West at Bay that was an effective and entertaining Scotland Yard procedural right in my wheelhouse. I did a bit of research and found out that Inspector West was a popular series by John Creasey, who was one of the most prolific detective fiction writers in the 50s and 60s in the UK.

I found this Toff book at a garage sale right around the corner from my house and picked it up. The Toff is an upper class lad in London who is a fulltime amateur detective. He has trophies in his library of past victories over crime and an older manservant who is an expert fighter and driver among other things. The story begins with a girl at Heathrow waiting for her fiancé who is coming back from a two-year business trip to the States. She is attacked by a dog and gets knocked unconscious. When she comes to her, fiancé is nowhere to be found, even though his plane emptied. The airport doctor takes her to the Toff for help in finding her fiancé and figuring out what happened to her.

It's an intriguing story and it moves along at a steady clip with no shortage of action. Once you start to see the pieces to the puzzle, the mystery isn't all that interesting and there is a certain distance from the antagonist. He is cool and on top of everything, with a superior air, and it renders him opaque. Interestingly, some of the way the story was structured reminded me of the BBC radio play (Inspector West at Bay). Interesting because he was famous for writing such a wide spectrum within the crime genre and that even the tone of his books was different depending on the sub-genre.

I probably wouldn't read another Toff novel, but it wouldn't hurt if an opportunity arose and I'm glad I read this one. I have another Inspector West novel in book form this time and am looking forward to that.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

39. Millenium People by J.G. Ballard

I've read quite a few of Ballard's books and I rank him very high, but I'm not such a big fan of his later works and don't totally get the hype around that period. For me, it's his early post-apocalyptic books, The Empire of the Sun and High Rise that really stand out. But the pundits seem to consider Crash the peak of his career. I picked up Millenium People because the premise was so appealing. It's about a revolt by a bunch of upper middle-class people in London. It was an interesting read, but it felt bogged down by the constant, and arguably repetitive imposition of its themes into the story. And the story, unfortunately, lacked the energy and fervour it needed to carry those heavy themes along. High Rise is a very similar theme, but that story had such ferocious and unbuckled savagery that its premise is driven home organically. Here, I felt like Ballard kept interrupting me to remind of what he is really talking about. Furthermore, he uses way too many metaphors that don't seem to serve much of a purpose: "I could still taste the smoke in the doomed auditorium, rolling above my head like a compulsive dream" and "Hungerford? The name flitted through my mind like a trapped moth as we drove back to London."

The thing is, he is a really good writer, so even some of the seemingly meaningless prose is still often enjoyable to read. He does a good job of poking fun at the upper middle class and there is some pretty classic Ballardian weirdness, particularly the story about the nurse who masturbated the severely handicapped children in her ward. But I would not recommend this book unless you are a serious Ballard completist.

On a publishing/marketing note, the end of the book had some neat additions, I guess an initiative the publisher (Harper Perennial) was doing at the time. There is an interview with Ballard, a good analysis of the book that actually made me like it a little better and some recommended readings. I usually find this kind of stuff distracting, but here it was quite nicely laid out, easily digestible with some real information. I hope it did well for them.