Thursday, October 28, 2010

51. A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge

I picked up this book in Amsterdam with the weird feeling that my wife might like it. I ended up reading it because it was thin and I've been enjoying the British writers a lot these days. Now I am not sure that I would recommend it to my wife. A Quiet Life is about a young adolescent growing up in a dysfunctional family in postwar Britain. It's very well-written, but wow is it unpleasant. I have a kind of mild crush on British culture. This book was like discovering your crush has genital warts. Man, I forgot how totally depressing and crushingly class-conscious the British were (and probably still are, though it seems to have improved significantly). The boy is 15. His father and mother are in a constant passive-aggressive battle. They once were quite rich and lost it all and she is obsessed with maintaining the two livable rooms in the small house completely clean so the family spends the whole time cramped into the back kitchen. The daughter is "creative", doesn't where shoes and goes out every night to meet a German POW. The son is trying to hold all this together, desperate to try and prevent his parents from getting into conflict, totally shamed by his sister's behaviour. He gets in a suppressed fury when she does anything that might call attention to him or the family.

In short, it is almost entirely depressing. There is one light moment when the parents laugh about something an unannounced guest said. It's so deftly done and well captured, that it made me smile. Bainbridge is clearly a talented writer. But other than that moment and a dark but enjoyable moment when the father flips out and decides to burn a chair that he is always bumping into, it's basically non-stop bourgeois angst of the most annoying kind. Even in the British kitchen sink genre, there is always at least a rebellious energy, a certain anarchy as well as an appreciation for the rich social culture of the working classes. Here it is just all blandness and suppression.

Even worse, as the book goes on you see that the most sympathetic character is the sister. She is revealed to be sort of creative and fun-loving. The whole book seems like an attack on the brother (who really is a pill, dude, just get over it!) and I see that Beryl Bainbridge actually did have a German POW lover, so I wonder if this book isn't her own angry woman attack. It sounds like her works matured and broadened in scope, but A Quiet Life just seemed like a lashing out and though well-written, I must condemn it.

50. The Roald Dahl Omnibus

As I have previously revealed, one of my techniques to keeping the numbers up in this 50 Books game is to have a book of short stories going, where you read a story in between novels. This was the case with the Roal Dahl Omnibus which I picked up at a moving sale of an acquaintance. However, Dahl has such an enjoyable prose style and his stories are so intriguing that I would often end up reading two or even three stories in a row before turning out the light.

These are dark and sometimes even nasty little stories, but the twists are often quite subtle, gently slid in to the reading so you don't even realize they are there until the story comes to an end. I think my own expectations played a role, because I often was waiting for some big twist or climactic ending, a feeling I think spurred by the intrigue of the stories' set-ups. However, once I realized that there wasn't going to be a big bang of a reveal, I settled down to enjoy the subtler stuff going on underneath.

A lot of the stories tend to deal with an individual who has some behaviour trait or assumed understanding of the world who has it turned around often for the worse. Revenge hovers throughout many of the stories and a certain cruelty, more often than not to women. It is difficult, though, to categorize these stories, as there is such a range of situations and subject matters (though they are all contemporary and in the civilized english speaking world, generally of the middle and upper classes). Many of the stories were published in mainstream manly magazines of their time like Playboy and Esquire.

A very enjoyable read. My favourite story is Royal Jelly. You should read that one alone if you can.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

49. When the Tripods Came

This was a nice little find, something I've been keeping my eyes out for a while. It's a prequel to John Christopher's well-loved and much-read Tripods trilogy. He wrote it in 1988, many years after the trilogy. I don't know if this is true, but I have read in two places that other science fiction authors, particularly Brian Aldiss, scoffed at the low-tech nature of the tripods and didn't believe that they would have been capable of taking over the world without even having infrared. A pretty annoyingly geeky critique, if it's true. The story goes that Christopher wrote When the Tripods Came in response. In your face, sci-fi geeks!

I'm glad I didn't know anything about that backstory when I started reading it. It opens with two boys on a camping trip, hiding in a farmer's barn, when they hear the thumps of an oncoming tripod. They watch as it snags and captures the fleeing farmer, whips the family dog into the ground and destroys the farmhouse. Then the military comes and quite easily destroys the tripod when it tries to lift the tank. Later, the boys learn that 3 other tripods had landed on the planet and they were all easily destroyed. The tripods become a bit of a laughingstock (emphasis is made on how awkward they look when they walk). There is even a TV show for children, which starts to become quite popular, even amongst adults.

Things start to get weird when the protagonist notices how angry his sister gets when he forgets to record an episode of the Trippy Show. She completely loses it. Soon the Trippy show starts spawning a social movement of people called Trippers. They start to migrate out of cities and gathering in large groups in the country (mimicking a hippy movement in some ways). Again, I stop going into any more detail, because the deliciousness of the book is how the Tripod conspiracy unfolds. Even in a fairly short young-adult novel, Christopher's very dark view of mankind comes through and he is extremely effective at creating the atmosphere of real dread when a previously open society starts to tighten things down.

It's a very quick and entertaining read and definitely worth it if you have read the original trilogy.

Hey also look what I discovered: The entire trilogy was serialized in comics form in Boys Life in the '80s. It's never been collected, but you can still find them on Google Books. Even better, this dude collected the scans in order on his blog here at the Haunted Closet blog. Nice work!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

48. Whit by Iain Banks

The only other Iain Banks book I have read is The Wasp Factory and I liked it okay, but didn't love it. That was before I discovered the genius of Iain M. Banks, most of whose Culture novels I've read (though I am fast falling behind having not read his last two). It turned out that several of my international colleagues had quite good taste in books and several of them recommended Whit as one of the better Iain Banks books. I happened to find it at a used bookstore in Amsterdam (though I doubt this book is hard to find).

It's the story of a young girl, Isis (and a whole bunch of middle and surnames finally ending in Whit) who is a member of a peculiar but pretty happy-seeming sect in Scotland. They are kind of like the Amish, because they are forbidden to use technology, but they are also pretty mellow about sex and licentious behaviour. The heroine is actually a very important figure in the sect, as she, being born on a leap year and having the ability to heal is the next in line to be the leader when her grandfather, who is also the founder, dies.

The catalyst for the plot is that Isis's cousin, who is a successful concert performer sends a letter saying she is leaving the sect and won't return to perform for an important upcoming festival. Isis is sent out to London to find her and to try and bring her back. The first half of the book follows Isis, who is very capable and self-assured, but also utterly inexperienced with the modern world (naive is the word that comes to mind, but it wouldn't be right because she is well aware of the potential dangers and evils out there), on her journey. That story is interspersed with Isis slowly revealing how her sect works and its history.

As she gets closer to her cousin, she starts to learn strange things and the second half of the book follows her as she looks more closely at her sect and starts to unravel the truth behind its background and also strange things that have been going on there under her nose all this time. I'm being very vague because I really don't want to give anything away. It's a very engaging and fun book and you get caught up in both parts. In the first, it is just a great adventure of a headstrong fish-out-of-water character in modern Great Britain and she gets caught up in several quite fun situations and handles them in a very entertaining way. In the second part, you really want to know what is going on and you very much sympathize with Isis. It was a hard book to put down and I cranked through its 400+ pages in 3 days, even prioritizing work errands that I knew would have me waiting so I could finish it.

I'm not sure if Banks is saying anything too deep here. It's just a fun ride. The first half reminded me of Isabelle Allende, where adventure is found in the story of a normal but peculiar person in the normal world.

Amsterdam is for (book) lovers!

A happy used book nerd!

I had the good fortune of getting sent to Amsterdam for a work conference and I took advantage to stay another 5 days after doing the tourist thing with my wife. I was so busy leading up to the trip, that it didn't dawn on me that there could be some serious used book potential in this northern european city with many expats and lots of anglo traffic. My wife had already done some excellent research and asking some of my well-read colleagues who work in Amsterdam helped as well.

My first stop was The Spui (pronounced spow), which is pretty centrally located on the tram line (though that city is so labrynthine, that getting from the stop to the actual square a distance of maybe 100 metres is not obvious at all). It's a square and every Friday they have booksellers. There are also several large english-language bookstores right near there as well. The American Book Centre is almost entirely new stuff (and quite an excellent selection and layout) but they have a tiny shelf of used books that is really a treasure. Super cheap prices and some good stuff. I found a Duncan Kyle and a Sven Hassel, each for a Euro.

I was particularly excited by the stalls, though. The emphasis was more on art books and they did have way too many english classics (snoooze, like those are hard to find), but there were two stalls with a lot of good paperback genre fiction. One in particular was exactly what I was looking for: an older gentleman dressed sensibly and smartly, but slightly shabbily who totally knew his crime fiction. He told me that John Christopher was out of vogue now and it would be very hard to find anything but his young adult novels. We had a good discussion about C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, which was joined by another book browser. They both agreed that Forester was the real deal, but the vendor drew the line at the browser's attempts to make O'Brian seem like a bit of an imposter. The vendor did have an entire series of naval fiction by some real impostor that he said he was ashamed to carry (but I guess they sold okay). I ended up getting Commander Hornblower and another WWII Forester book. He also strongly recommended me Ross Thomas (I was attracted by the cover) and he was definitely on point with that recommendation. Prices were kind of what one expects in this day and age except inflated by the high price of living in Europe, so like 4 Euros a book. A very satisfying start to my Amsterdam tourist experience!

The other good place to check out is the Book Exchange. A pretty classic looking used bookstore that had tons of promise. I was very psyched just walking in there.

Alluring, no?

Unfortunately, despite a decent mystery and sci-fi section, I found nothing in paperback that really interested me. I did find a shelf of hardbacks and found a nice edition of Anarchaos. It was some kind of reprint, because though it was a first edition, it had Donald Westlake as the author. Still, I am glad to have it finally. The guy working the desk was friendly, but a bit distant when it came to actual discussion about books. He was forthcoming about how they got books and the history of the store. As we were talking, I noticed three stacks of fruit boxes filled with books. On the top of one was a very promising box indeed. I could see several british paperbacks with the kinds of covers and paper that I know could spell quality and I really wanted to look through. Unfortunately, all the boxes were of books that had just been sold to someone else (another bookseller presumably). The guy was a bit cagey on this point (probably more out of motivation of avoiding adding any work to his life of standing behind the counter). I kept eyeing the box and seriously considered just stealing it. Maybe getting my wife to get the guy to help him in the back and then just grabbing the 40-box and running into the Amsterdam streets where I don't know my way at all. It just seemed crazy enough to work. I'm an ethical guy and would have found a way to pay the store back. As these thoughts were running through my mind, the guy started doing some re-arranging, moving the boxes around and put the one I was eyeing on the bottom of the pile! I guess I didn't case the joint subtly enough. I came back a couple days later and the boxes were all gone. Strike while the iron is hot, man! I could be on the lam now in Central Europe, trading rare paperbacks on the black market to buy some charred rat on a stick, clinging to the two Samuel Youd novels, refusing to give them up even though I desperately need some boots to make it through the snow to get around the checkpoint! Ah, lost opportunities.

When will this discrimination finally end!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

47. Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester

I probably should not have read this book. The gentleman who sold it to me was very persuasive and said it was one of the best of the series. For those of you who don't know, C.S. Forester is Patrick O'Brian of his day and more. His Horatio Hornblower series are considered the true classics of British naval fiction and some may even consider O'Brian a bit of a pretender. I shouldn't have read Commodore Hornblower because it is quite far into the series and it makes a lot of references, both about stuff that actually happened and Hornblower's own change in perspective and outlook that I think would have been much more satisfying and rich had I arrived there along the same path as the main character himself.

Well blow me down, I just did a bit of perfunctory research and it turns out that the books are not written in chronological order of Hornblower's life and that Commodore Hornblower is in fact the 4th book (of 10 and a partially written one). So maybe I'm fine. Also, ten novels is a lot more digestible than the twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin series, so it is conceivable that I could read this entire series. Also, when I say digestible, I also felt that, at least in this one novel, the terminology was much lighter than in the O'Brian books. A lot of Commodore Hornblower takes place on land (they are stationed at Riga to defend a siege by Napoloenic forces), so perhaps the other books are harder to parse. I found the relations between the characters in the one Patrick O'Brian book I read to be much richer and more complex, but I also felt lost for a lot of the naval warfare stuff, which is something I actually do want to enjoy. With this book, I found it much easier to understand what was actually going on and there are some tricky miilitary maneuvers, including a cool long-distance mortaring of a trapped french cutter that normally would have been safe in a friendly harbour.

I didn't really mean to make this review a comparison between the two series, and it is specious at best since I've only read a single book from each. On its own, Commodore Hornblower was engaging, entertaining and a great read. It has excellent British mettle, great strategy, even a bit of sex and some rip-roaring adventure. Thoroughly satisfying. It has given me a taste for more.

Friday, October 08, 2010

46. First Blood by David Morrell

Looking back through the last month or so of books I've read, I realize that I have just read 3 books in a row from the early 70s (Syzygy from '73, The Porkchoppers from '72 and now First Blood from '73) and I just tore through all three of them. I'm starting to wonder if this isn't my wheelhouse of genre fiction. The Parker series by Richard Stark (who just crushed the crime genre landscape) comes to its brilliant conclusion in 1974 and I'm sure if I go through my past reads, I'll find some more. It's interesting, because I otherwise generally consider the popular culture in that period to be pretty frickin' terrible. The music sucked for the most part (it was the heigh of AOR FM radio rock), Hollywood was at its nadir (and I'm no fan of the supposed "auteur" cinema of that period either) and of course fashion, architecture and interior design were about as terrible as it will ever get (famous last words right there). So I wonder why the writing is so good for me?

When I first saw this paperback, the cover really grabbed me (how cool is that drawing of Rambo so small in the upper right hand corner above the stark letters of the title; great layout). But I assumed it was a novelization of the movie (which I actually only saw this year for the first time and really enjoyed). When it turned out to be an original novel, I decided to pick it up. Another solid move. My instincts have really been strong this year! (Not to give myself too much credit, as a teeny bit of internet research will show you that this book is quite well respected.)

What I enjoyed about the movie (and what I hadn't expected due to my impressions of the later Rambo character) was its counter-culture attitude. Rambo is basically a hippie in the first part of the movie, a drifter who wants to do his own thing but gets harrassed by the petty authority of a small town sheriff. It's very lefty for the first two-thirds until the bizarre deus ex machina pro-military ending (which presaged the next two jingoistic films).

The film coloured my reading of First Blood and though the basic set-up is the same, thematically it is very, very different, much subtler and much more nuanced. Rambo is a sympathetic character at the beginning, but so is the sheriff. Rambo is also kind of a cypher and you don't really understand (nor do you sympathize with him entirely) why he pushes back so hard against the sheriff, who is actually kind of doing him a favour when he drives him across town. He also does it in a fairly decent way at first. But Rambo keeps on pushing.

The other major difference is that Rambo really does kick some serious ass. He kills tons of people (and dogs and a fucking innocent owl for christ's sake!) in the book and does so coldly and brutally. By the end, he goes totally hogwild, making the movie look like Terms of Endearment. The novel is about a human trained for war who is let loose in a civiilian society that is not prepared to handle him. It is clearly a reaction to the returning vets from Vietnam and touches upon that theme in a much darker and more complex way than the movie (you could also make an argument that Rambo is a metaphor for American imperialism). It's so dark that at times it was almost unpleasant for me to read. But it is also an intense and exciting manhunt story with all kinds of cool techniques as well as great use of the landscape. I suspect that the famous mud wall scene from Rambo: First Blood II was taken from a scene in this book.

I found this awesome snippet from the wikipedia page on David Morell: "Morrell is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School for wilderness survival as well as the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security". How do you get into that school?

45. The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas

This was recommended to me by a bookseller at the Stui in Amsterdam where they have a book market every Friday (more on this visit when I get the picture from my wife's camera). He said that you always knew there is a real intelligence behind Ross Thomas' stories. It had a tough look to it and the opening sentence (which I always check when deciding on a book) was very strong indeed: "They were old hundred-dollar bills, a little limp now, even a little greasy, and one of them had a rip in it that somebody had neatly mended with a strip of Scotch tape."

The Porkchoppers is the story of a union election, told mostly through the eyes of its current president, though it has a big cast of characters and spends some time with each of them. This truly is a novel told in the omniscient voice, except for one small mystery that holds it all together. It almost felt a little removed to me, the way the perspective jumps from location to location, coldly (and richly, I must add) describing each character, their background, their hidden foibles, their own take on the situation. But it builds up a real momentum and the characters are all so engaging that its hard to put down. The president is a total alcoholic, barely able to make it past noon without being blotto, but he is still very charismatic and has a certain driving will. A lot of the action is him going from campaign stop to campaign stop, supported by his advisors, handlers, wife and son. These scenes paint a complex and entertaining picture of the big union machine of the early 70s, all the corruption and politics. Only adding to the cynicism are the scenes of the real power players who are competing in the background to pull the strings and make sure their money wins out. This goes all the way up to the White House and paints a very bleak picture.

I really enjoyed this book and am really appreciative of the Dutch bookseller with excellent taste who steered me to Ross Thomas. He is definitely on my list. Great stuff.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

44. Syzygy by Michael G. Coney

I'm proud of finding this little book. I picked it up in Winnipeg two years ago (tempus fugit!) based solely on the neat cover, British heritage and publication date (1972). I was not disappointed. It takes place on a human colony that is mostly made up of water. I really enjoyed the setting, because the science fiction in it is subtle, it could almost be Australia, if it were settled in the 70s. The issues are more about how the settlers have adjusted to the new world after two generations, the conflicts between the people at the regions and the distant administrative center. The protagonist is a marine scientist who works at the local research station. There is a slight divide between the people from the station and the locals, whose economy is mostly based on fishing. Every 52 years, the six moons of the planet align and weird things happen. What actually happened the last time is mostly lost in history, but there were tales of people losing control, riots and murders. The human behaviour is somehow connected to the biology of the planet and the book is the story of the hero and others figuring this out while they also slowly deal with their own crazed behaviour. I don't want to give away too much, but it has to do with a slow awakening of a telepathy that allows one to feel the emotions and thoughts of others. The problem is that you don't realize you are reading their thoughts and their hidden feelings, especially their negative ones, come out to you so directly, you think you are hearing them. And it gets worse from there.

What made the book enjoyable for me is that the characters are all very well portrayed and you get a great sense of this claustrophobic community and how easily it could all go really ugly if everybody's worst thoughts were revealed and amplified. It does have a particularly 70s British pessimism to it that I love reading about but don't necessarily adhere to myself.

The internet tells me that Syzygy is an astronomical term referring to the alignment of three or more celestial bodies. It also tells me that Michael Coney was quite prolific and lived in Victoria, B.C. until his death in 2005. That means we were in the same town for 4 years! I'll keep an eye out for other works by him.