Friday, April 29, 2011

26. The Menorah Men by Lionel Davidson

Though the copy I found at Chainon had a very contemporary cover, the book was originally published in 1966 and was touted as being a classic action thriller in the mode of Deighton, LeCarré and Innes. Also, it was about a lost artifact and took place in the middle east. Right up my alley, so I took the risk. After having read it, I found that Lionel Davidson was quite succesful and though he only wrote around a half-dozen books, they were all big sellers and got excellent critical reviews.

So I don't know if the Menorah Men is a particularly bad example of his work or if his success was more a reflection of the time than any particular quality he may have had as a writer. Because this book was really not very good. From the very beginning, I struggled to get through the language, which was convoluted and overly clever. I couldn't even really figure out what the hell was going on there was so much innuendo and half-references. Just tell us that he is at a party and where and who the people are that he meets. I guess if you are a super pro, you can take your writing to that level, but Davidson was not there when he wrote this, that's for sure. I don't know if I got used to his "style" or if it toned down, but after the first 50 pages, I was able to actually get into it.

And the thing is, Davidson is actually a pretty good writer, when he stopped trying to be all 60s cool. His descriptions of the desert are quite evocative and there is a scene near the end, where two lawyers go at it, that was quite thrilling. But even if the whole book had been clearly written, it wouldn't have mattered, because the protagonist is such a prick. I mean I get the idea of the slighly boorish action hero or the normal guy in the wrong place surviving by his wits. But the hero here spends the whole book basically date-raping the hot Israeli soldier that is assigned to him (and of course she gives in and loves him by the end), being basically constantly drunk and even more so when an important military action has to go down and being completely disrespectful to the locals and religious people (barging into a synagogue on the sabbath and demanding some guy to open a store because he needs a map now which he could have waited for).

The story is about the search for a lost fabled Menorah that represented the spiritual wealth of the Jews after they were massacred by the the Romans. There is some neat history and the present day stuff is a cool set-up, with conflicts between archeologists and developers, Israelis and Jordanians at the border and artifact smugglers. The location is great. But the story meanders (the thrilling legal debate being the high point of the entire book is testimony to that) and when you don't hate the protagonist, you really don't give a shit.

Sorry, Lionel Davidson, maybe your other books kick ass, but I'm going to need someone whom I respect really argue that for me before I pick one up.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

25. Monsieur Monde Vanishes

The Simenon roman durs are everywhere! Monsieur Monde Vanishes, along with one other, was lent to me by my basketball-watching buddy. He's an intelligent fellow with quite specific tastes and we have a bit of a cultural exchange going on. Some things have worked and some haven't, but we definitely share an appreciation for Simenon's cold, distant gaze at humanity.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes, is, as the title explicitly states, about a man who decides to just leave his life. He is a successful industrialist with a distant wife and a distant son. One day, he just doesn't go home after work, instead taking out some cash from the bank, selling his tailor-made suit for an off the rack (gasp!) and wandering around Paris until he finds a dreary hotel. He seems to equate the working and lower-middle classes with some kind of freedom or at least with having something that he longs for. It's never explicitly stated what drives him, because even when he does succeed in truly leaving his old life behind, he still seems disconnected, at least from other people. Yet he gains some satisfaction from his adventure and there is some internal change in him. Whether it is for the better or the worst is hard to say. It ends on a very dark, inhuman note.

It's a quick and interesting read, with a rich immersion into some great Paris milieux, such as a casino and a poorer class of hotel where he lives. It makes you reflect on success and what it means to be alive and with other people, but perhaps not in the most optimistic way. I think that this novel could probably be correctly called existential. It lacks the intensity and focus of some of my more preferred romans durs and so didn't blow my mind, but it was still a good book.

The book is part of that very nice line of New York Review of Books Classics trade paperbacks. Normally, I don't like the trade paperback format, but these have a somber tone and nice spacing so that I quite enjoy their look despite the annoying size. However, in the case of this book, I find the cover image to be inappropriate. Monsieur Monde is described as stout, with an almost boyish body. The tall thin guy on the cover looks to much like what a North American would expect a french businessman to look like.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spring Bookshelf re-org

I don't know what got into me, but I was overtaken by a powerful compulsion to create a fifth shelf for my paperback collection. My quartet of Archives Canada solid maple bookshelves all had 4 levels on them and that does seem to be the amount they were designed for. I've known for a while that I could theoretically fit a fifth shelf and I have the boards already finished, but I was never quite sure that it would actually work. The issue being that the gradation between the little pegs that support the shelves is about an inch and I wasn't sure that if in actual practice 5 shelves would actually have enough space to fit books of a paperback size.

Unfortunately, I got so into the job that I completely forgot about taking any pictures until after I was done. As you can see, my theory was correct, unfortunately, I had to segregate out trade paperbacks. Only on the bottom shelf (where I just can't bear to separate my old Parker paperbacks from the new University of Chicago reprints), is there enough space for anything taller than a standard, classic paperback.

I also had to sacrifice my rolepaying games shelf, which was quite a tall one on the bottom. I was quite proud of that, but most of the books on that shelf are for games I'll most likely never play, so I am going to sell a bunch and then consolidated the rest with my (also tall) comic book shelf.

Here are the major advantages that have resulted in my work: 1) I have much more space to grow into, as you can see and 2) all my paperbacks are on the same shelf unit, as opposed to divided across two. So while I am very happy with the change, it isn't without some small regret. Sometimes you need to get tough in order to move forward!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

24. You'd Better Believe It by Bill James

I picked this up purely on a whim during a nasty, rainy evening that drove me into the warm interior of S.W. Welch's. The depressing weather spurred my consumer appetite and I bought this book and one other (a nice penguin Hornblower) despite my spreading on-deck shelf. I was drawn in by the thinness of the books, the setting of criminal urban england and the hard prose. My instincts were not off as Bill James is an excellent discovery. It turns out he is quite well known and respected in the U.K. for his various series of "Welsh Noir", this one being the first in the best known, Harpur & Iles, of which there are 22 books!

In You'd Better Believe It, detective Harpur is the main protagonist, a frazzled, but driven cop whose personal morality is revealed to be questionable at best in the first pages as he is portrayed making a play for one of his subordinate's wife. The plot centers around a tip-off about a big bank robbery that is supposed to go down. The job is delayed and during the wait, big time players come into Harpur's smaller seaside city and start ruthlessly killing informants ("grasses" as they are known in this milieu) and a police officer (the previously mentioned subordinate). Caught between a bureaucratic and politically-nervous administration and a poverty-stricken society, Harpur has to act often on his own.

The story is decent, seemingly quite realistic, but without a lot of suspense. The milieu is top-notch, as is the language. This is the hard, ruthless Britain where human culture is limited to dark humour, alchohol and a few good boots in. It's funny, because the plot and procedural elements were not dissimilar to the world of de Gier and Grijpstra, but the cultural level was just so different. Let's just say that I would much prefer to be a police detective in van der Wetering's Amsterdam than James' fictional Wales.

A great find. From what I've read, this series gets richer and I'm looking forward to seeing that happen. Though my on-deck shelf doesn't!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

23. Hard Rain by Janwillem van der Wetering

Hard Rain is the fourth and last of the pile of Grijstra and de Gier procedurals a friend of mine with a child dumped on me. I found all four to be really enjoyable and it is a series that I would always be happy to return to, but at the same time, I am quite happy to have these four off of my on-deck shelf.

Hard Rain was published in 1989, but other than the use of a computer modem, things don't seem to have changed much in the world outside of the Amsterdam murder squad. Amsterdam is still a fairly rough-and-tumble city, with a lot of drug abuse and petty crime. However, inside the squad, serious corruption is taking hold. At the beginning of the book, the Commisarius, who is Grijpstra and de Gier's boss, is coming back from a "relaxing" vacation, when he learns that the director of a bank has killed himself. The principal shareholder of the bank is an old enemy of his. He also learns that this investigation, as well as several others, have been bungled or shut down by the commissioner in charge during his absence.

This time, the Commisarius, who is in really the main protagonist of this story (and for that matter, referring to these books as the "Grijpstra and de Gier Series" is inaccurate as the Commisarius and Constable Cardozo feature just as much as those two; it should really be called "the four cool and incorruptible guys in the Amsterdam murder squad series"), goes "off the reservation" with his team. Together, using unorthodox methods, they strive to take down the evil banker and the internal corruption. Along the way, there are the usual philosophical and slightly absurd conversations about life, work and art. There aren't quite as many interesting Amsterdam locales and locals in this one, but there is more focus on the Commisarius himself, which is pretty good as well.

Also, it's interesting that the Commisarius's first name is Jan and his main rival the banker's first name is Willem while the author's first name is Janwillem. Maybe this means nothing if you know a little something about Dutch nomenclature, but I noticed it, in any case.

One more good entry in a solid and enjoyable series.

Monday, April 18, 2011

22. Black Camelot by Duncan Kyle

In honour of Louis XIV's ascension to role of official Archivist for the British Library, I decided to go back into my own collection and re-read one of the few books that I have a first edition copy of (at least I think I do; I'm never quite sure of these things): Duncan Kyle's WWII espionage thriller Black Camelot.

[To stop being facetious for a moment, it really is a cool thing that the British Library found Existential Ennui and recognized it for the value it is providing. Nick Jones has been steadily posting about some great but relatively unrecognized genre authors of the 60s, 70s and 80s. He hunts down rare editions of the books, researches their publishing history with a special emphasis on their design and covers. These are books that never received the archival respect they deserve because of their commercial or genre-based nature but in hindsight, today we see a lot of art, culture and history in them. All of us genre fans always appreciated these works and recognize their contribution to culture. It is great to see that institutions like the British Library recognize that as well and it is thanks Nick's hard work that this information will be preserved and made accessible to more people.]

I have always enjoyed Duncan Kyle's work, but in my mind I always consider him a poor man's Desmond Bagley. Such a ranking is probably not just and I think that it's based more on Bagley being more consistent and prolific as well as having excellent marketing support during the height of his popularity. (Although reading this great post about him with layouts of all his Fontana covers suggests I may be wrong about the marketing part; perhaps it was only in Canada that he didn't receive the distribution of Bagley.) I had suspected for a while that I need to go back and re-read both Bagley and Kyle to re-assess how I think about them and this read of Black Camelot has helped reinforce that notion.

The cover of my book is awesome, showing as you see here, a nazi officer hanging from a rope surrounded by fire. This does happen in the book, but it takes such a long and circuitous route to get there that I was doubtful it would even happen at points. That route is quite enjoyable and shows Kyle's skill at weaving a rich narrative and his knowledge of espionage and crime. It also reveals a pretty hard cynicism that gives this book a dark edge.

Conway is an Irish reporter based in Stockholm in 1944. In neutral Denmark, he is able to get stories on the situation in Germany. One of his tricks is to wait for the flight from Berlin and get his hands on the German newspapers before his rivals do. He happens upon SS officer Franz Rasch, who has been sent by his superiors to deliver some papers that they hope will sow division between the British and the Russians. What Rasch doesn't know is that he is set up to be condemned as a traitor and deserter to make the story seem more authentic to the Brits and Russians. By fluke, Conway helps Rasch out, figuring out what is going on, they devise a blackmail scheme.

I don't want to give away anything more, so I'll skip out the details of the circuitous path, but the novel climaxes in an assault on the famous (and real) SS castle Wewelsburg, which Himmler created to be a spiritual center for Nazi mythology. According to the novel, it also contained a room full of Nazi intelligence files, both damning for the Allie as well as many leading Nazis (Heydrich, who assembled the documents, gained his political strength by having dirt on everybody). It's these documents that are the target of the raid.

This is a great book. It's got a little bit of everything you could want in a WWII thriller: espionage, nasty domestic crime, internal politics at the top level of both the Allies and the Nazis, awesome Nazi fanaticism and it is all topped off by an action-packed finale. The really strong points that made me raise Duncan Kyle in my ranking are a couple of asides where he describes the histories of two successful British businessmen and how they could have supported the Nazi movement. They were very realistic and rich, a few pages that encapsulated how easy it is for men to be sucked into evil. Their stories could easily take place today in slightly different contexts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

21. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

It's so strange that I had never heard of this book until my friend Castaway, man of good taste and fruitful loins, blogged about it in his now defunct 50 books blog several years ago (having triplets is a good excuse to stop with the blog, I'd say). I say it's strange, because it was an extremely popular novel and one that would have appealed to my adolescent self for sure. And we were exposed much more to British reading trends in Canada. In any case, I'm glad I found it, because it really was an engrossing and entertaining read and informative as well. (Appropriately, it was part of the minor treasure haul of old books I found high up in a storage room at my job.)

I will explain the informative part immediately, just to make it clear that I recognize this is a work of fiction, based on the Arthurian myths. However, I am so ignorant of this period of history that even the broad lines (about the back and forth between the various British tribes and European tribes, notably the Saxons for control of the the island of Britain) were new to me and really interesting. It's a period I would like to learn more about.

But on to the fun! The Crystal Cave is about the life and rise to power of Merlin. He starts out in a royal house, the son of a queen, but neglected and threatened because he is a bastard, his father unknown, his mother refusing to reveal. In some ways, this is the classic story of the young underdog rising to become a hero. What makes this book so enjoyable is the twist in that classic setup. Merlin's growth to power is through the path of knowledge rather than physical prowess. Furthermore, his role is always to one side of the visible power, in support of the kings who will unite Britain and drive out the Saxons. As he faces challenges and encounters new situations, he learns. He learns medicine, engineering, history and many other practical subjects. Through practice and his own shrewd wit, he also learns politics and the manipulative strategies necessary to survive in these courts of intrigue. All this stuff in the book is immensely enjoyable (especially for the underdog nerds of the world, I can well imagine).

Another interesting aspect is the way magic is handled. It exists, but it is quite subtle and except for a few brief mentions of minor cantrips, is limited to "the sight" and entirely out of Merlin's hands. Partly through accident and later by manipulation, he uses the visions in combination with his own wiles to create the perception that he is a wizard of great power. What is interesting is that all the while, he himself is quite humble and almost passive. It makes for a strange hero. You definitely like him, but you also feel that he is almost a victim of fate at times. It makes for a strange hero.

The last third, until I made it to the very end, began to feel a bit episodic as well. The ending ties it altogether, but I felt it lost a bit of its overall narrative arc and became more about a series of historical advances made by the British against the Saxons and Merlin's role in them. They were nevertheless still quite entertaining and engaging episodes, but it wasn't until the end that it all made more sense in the greater narrative arc. Perhaps if one was already aware of the legend of King Arthur's origins (which this book leads up to and is neatly summarized in an afterword), it would have been clear to what end these episodes were directed.

Overall, a really enjoyable and absorbing read which brings to life this early period of British history, where a culture and civilization was rebuilding itself on top of the Roman ruins and in the face of the barbaric onslaughts from mainland Europe, onslaughts she would face time and time again, always displaying her mettle with that indomitable spirit the great island nation was built on (see what this book does to me!:)).

Friday, April 08, 2011

20. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

I've been aware of Jack Vance for a long time, but never read anything by him or knew much beyond his influence on Dungeons & Dragons. The magic in earlier versions of D&D is often called "Vancian" in the sense that there are specific spells that have to discovered and learned and kept in spell books as opposed to other forms such as ritualistic or more free-flowing. There are adherents and opponents of this approach, but whatever your flavour, Vance's imagination had a lot of influence on the origins of fantasy roleplaying games.

We feed a stray tomcat on the back balcony and he tries to sneak into the house and leave his mark. He has hit us successfully a few times, the last being a quick blast on the bottom shelf of meezly's books. Bad scene, but she did a pretty good job of getting her books mostly rid of the cat pheremones, except for a paperback of The Dying Earth. I didn't even know she had it and considering her pretended abhorrence of roleplaying games (part of the secret unwritten chick code) it was quite ironic that she owned one of the classics of the genre and I hadn't even read it! I felt it was time to delve back into a bit of fantasy, so I picked it up.

As usual, these older paperback editions never represent the contents properly. This is one area where the world has improved. When you get a genre book these days, it is usually very clear from the publisher's info where the book fits in within the rest of the author's work and exactly what it is you are getting. Back in the 60s and 70s, it seemed like they always had to obfuscate and mislead, so you could never figure out what the order of anything was, which characters would be in it and so on. The Dying Earth appears to be a novel, but it is actually a collection of short stories, all but one loosely connected through characters but having no other greater narrative beyond that they all take place in some far future earth where the sun is a dying red giant.

There is both the remmants of great magic and great technology in this world. Everybody seems aware that the planet is dying and this allows for a certain melancholy and a certain decadence, which is a great mix for adventure. Many of the stories are quests, where a hero or magician learns of some lost knowledge and seeks it out. These frameworks than allow Vance to draw out wondrous locations and fantastic creatures. It almost feels a little bit like the original Star Trek series, in which each story brings us to a new cool milieu, sometimes even with a political parable. As one gets older, one becomes less interested in the fantastic and more concerned with the human, the character, the conflict. Vance's fantastic is pretty awesome though and I found myself enjoying it for its own sake. Little people that fly around on dragonflies, trading gossip and rumours for tiny bags of salt they hang from their mounts, a demon whose face is only able to penetrate into our world and attacks with his tongue and ghosts spouting from his nostrils, a wizard who shrinks his enemy and puts him in a maze with a tiny dragon as a form of endless torture. It's really cool stuff. Furthermore, the stories themselves are quite elegantly constructed, almost little fables, neatly constructed and just as satisfyingly concluded.

There are only three other books in the Dying Earth series, but most of the rest of his work is science fiction and mystery (which surprises me somewhat, considering his impact on D&D). I hope that at least one of them is an actual full-length novel, because I would love to see his talents in the form of a longer, more deeply engaging story. As it is, I wouldn't be averse to reading more of his short stories as well.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

19. Murder over Dorval by David Montrose

Murder over Dorval is part of a new series of reprints called Ricochet Books put out by Véhicule Press, a Montreal publisher. Véhicule Press puts out a wide range of books associated with Montreal, including The Man who Killed Houdini, by my mother's cousin and Montreal chronicler, Donald Bell (which I'm ashamed to admit I stopped reading about halfway through; but I'll get to it!). The Ricochet Books are reprinting a line of Montreal pulp detective fiction from the '50s, which is just an awesome thing to do. These books are very hard, if not impossible, to find and they represent a tiny sub-genre of literature that should not be forgotten. They are also (at least judging by this one) pretty fun reads.

Murder over Dorval was an interesting book. On the surface, it's a pretty classic hard-boiled detective mystery, a bit derivative, a bit convoluted, but pretty fun with some hardcore badguys and a great set of locales. The language ranges from enjoyably rich to just too much ("her face was longer than a rainy weekend in the country"). To the fan of the genre, what will make Murder over Dorval distinct is the Montreal setting and the excessive drinking. The detective is basically wasted the entire book. What happened to Canada and alchohol? We still have great beer here, but good luck trying to get the proper drinks detective Russel Teed was putting back here. He's having a few beers for breakfast and just keeps going from there. Drinking and driving, drinking and detecting, drinking and getting his ass kicked. All in a day's work!

As a dual citizen, there was something else in this book that stood out for me, a kind of self-consciousness. It reminded me a lot of The Stringer in the way the protagonist is always telling us where he is going and who is there, trying almost too hard to assure us that things are happening here. At the same time, there is such a blind anglocentric perspective here that it makes for a weird mix. I always thought the anglo self-conscious that I encountered here was the result of being a minority, but I wonder if the Revolution Tranquille only influenced an existing solipsism. Again, it's all very subtle and such a reading could entirely be due to viewer bias, but it's a feeling I got.

I'm looking forward to the others in the series. The Body on Mont-Royal is out on shelves now and I'll be picking it up after I get through a few other books on my on-deck shelf. Brian Busby says it's the best of the bunch (how psyched would I be to find the original Harlequin version).

Oh yeah, physically, they did a really nice job with this book. A lovely full bleed cover with the original image and the ricochet logo nicely subtle. And though it goes against my environmental principles, I have to admit liking the quality feel of the paper and cover. It has heft for a paperbook. I'm also grateful that it is proper paperback size, not one of these lame "trade" paperbacks.

If you want it, you can buy it here.