Saturday, December 31, 2011

61. Without Drums or Trumpets by Alec Le Vernoy

Another succesful random book find closes out my 2011 year of reading.  Without Drums or Trumpets was one of the books I found in a dusty box in a top shelf of a work closet.  I had actually not taken it the first time through because the cover and title combination was so uninspiring (I thought it was a treatise on peace).  I had a second opportunity to go through the box and gave this one a closer look, thus realizing that it was actually a cool-sounding WWII narrative about a french guy who got into all kinds of adventures.

At the start of the war, Le Vernoy was a young outdoorsman, who loved the mountains.  There is a brief prologue of him with some friends on a trek and then we launch into the invasion of France and Le Vernoy's crazy story.  He fights briefly with the French army before the capitulation.  Instead of surrendering, he continues fighting and fleeing, making his way to North Africa.  There he tries desperately to join the British with a couple of insane kayaking and sailing episodes to Gibraltar.  He finally succeeds but instead of getting sent to fight, he is placed by British intelligence back in North Africa where he does a bunch of spying and then sabotage missions with the local french community in occupied North Africa.  I throw that off in a sentence, but this section alone is full of incredible episodes of tension and violence.

He eventually gets captured and spends time in a Tunisian prison.  When Nazi rule in North Africa starts to collapse, he is shipped to Germany with a bunch of other important prisoners where he ends up in a concentration camp.  The narrative here turns from the adventurous to the truly dark.  No matter how many different perspectives and narratives I encounter about those concentration camps, I am still surprised once again by the incredible horror of what went down there.  I guess the mind just sort of blocks it out.  In Le Vernoy's case, he was one of the POWs in the camp so it gave a different perspective than from the Jews who were for the most part sent specifically to be murdered.  All the other prisoners were basically being worked to death, so it wasn't much better, but it is just interesting to read about the experience from someone who actually saw families still carrying their suitcases being driven to the gas chambers, not realizing what was going to happen until the last minute.  He also writes an extremely effective passage where he describes the horrific philosophy of production behind the way the camp was being run.

Aside from being incredibly resourceful, he can also speak German and was a medical student, skills which get him into slightly less deprived positions in various prisons and which also allow him to find means of escape, which he does.  Most of his war, in fact, is him on the run, which leads to a lot of frustration for him, as his main goal is simply to get out and fight. He also has a lot of criticism for the majority of his own people, the french who collaborated or just remained passive.  The times when he goes from door to door, desperate for a bit of help, and is categorically refused by his own people are maddening and an important reminder for us all.

As a book, the translation from the french is a bit rough (but makes it feel that much more authentic) and as a personal narrative it lacks a consistent structure.  Those are minor concerns, though, as the guy's story is just so crazy and entertaining (and informative) that you can't stop turning the pages.

I was reading the end of this book while flying home.  The in-seat entertainment device was playing 24 channels of broadcast television and I kept getting distracted and flipping through the channels.  It was new year's eve and so we had all these countdowns and summaries of 2011.  Except for the brief actual news events, it was all so much irrelevant horseshit.  It just saddened me that a guy like Alec Le Vernoy, who had all of his fingernails peeled back slowly one by one because he wouldn't inform on his fellow prisoners, is mostly forgotten while our most powerful media voices spend vast resources celebrating nobodies who have done nothing.  Is this what guys like m. Le Vernoy sacrificed for?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

60. The White Rajah by Nicholas Monsarrat

First of all, a minor pat on the back for myself as this 60th book brings up my "lifetime" (well since 2005) 50 books average up to 50 books per year.  This was my goal and though I flagged in the second half of this year, I have achieved it.  So that is quite satisfying.  Now I shall try to maintain this average in the years to come.

I picked up the White Rajah early on in my trip to the Maritimes this summer almost entirely on the strength of the author's name.  I had only read The Cruel Sea and really enjoyed it.  The White Rajah sounded like a very different kind of book with an adventurous, possibly swashbuckling premise.  It also had a cool map of some south seas island.  As you can see, those elements were strong as they outweighed the super cheesy cover.

It's the epic story of Richard Marriot, younger brother of an artisocratic family in the 18th century who is left nothing but a globe and a pair of pistols by his wealthy father.  The book opens at the day of the funeral when Richard's stuffy older brother basically throws him out of his newly inherited estate.  After this dramatic chapter, we jump forward 10 years when Marriott is a pirate captain, sailing the exotic oceans.  He stumbles upon the island nation of Makassang and finds himself in an advantageous position, where he can upset the balance of power in a struggle between the ruling Rajah and the resentful buddhist priests.  Marriot is soon inculcated into the royal family and the bulk of the book follows the political struggles and his efforts (and lack thereof) to take control and help move the island from its savage state to a more politically enlightened place, with the help of the Rajah's beautiful daughter.

It was a really enjoyable read that suffered in the end by moving away from the adventure and intrigue towards political moralizing.  It wasn't heavy-handed, but instead of a tense narrative, Marriot's struggles are sort of undermined by a semi-deus ex machina ending (that also all too easily waves away all the narrative potential of the conflict between Richard and his brother, who is instrumental in the deux ex machina ending).  Another problem was the protagonist himself.  He is portrayed as a lusty, headstrong young man whose natural energy and charisma (which are wild and out of control when he is a young lord in England) are honed in his years as a south seas freebooter.  When he gets to Makassang, he becomes seduced by the easy living and grows soft and oblivious to the dangers around him.  It's a great theme, but I felt that it went on for way too long, with the dangers being so obvious and Marriot himself being so lame that I grew frustrated with him.  So instead of personal growth and a kick-ass return to form, we get lots of lots of him being passive while worse and worse shit goes on around him until finally the situation is intolerable, at which point a British gun ship comes out and saves the day.  He is never really given the agency that would pay off all the built-up potential and so the reader is left a bit unsatisfied.

Still, the first half of the book is gripping, the situation and location are exotic and richly developed and portrayed.  It was an enjoyable read and I would keep an eye out for any other Monsarrat books.  He is very skilled at telling a story, enough so that I am not ready to say that some of the choices he made in this book reflect an actual flaw in his skill as an author. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

59. The Folly by David Anne

My copy does not have the yellow graphic on it.
I stumbled upon this book in a big ripped open garbage bag of books in my own back alley.  At first, I thought I had stumbled upon the mythical motherlode.  They were all paperbacks, all in read but decent condition and looked to be from the time period that I am interested in.  But as I started to root around, I saw sadly that whoever had owned these books had the worst taste.  It was all that late 70s, early 80s garbage like Lawrence Sanders.  Ugh.  I did manage to salvage an Ed McBain and this british horror novel which looked promising.

According to the inside cover, it is David Anne's second novel and his first was a best-seller.  The cover I got off the net here also suggests that The Folly was also a best-seller.  I find it a bit hard to believe.  This book is not terrible, but it's pretty bad, awkardly and obviously structured without any real suspense.  It does have a few moments and ideas of horror that are okay, but otherwise it feels like the book equivalent of the TV movie of the week.

It takes place in the countryside and the events surrounding Sir Mark Hatrell's lands and the ancient tower called the Folly.  People in the surrounding countryside are getting savagely attacked and eaten by some creatures.  [spoiler here] It turns out that sir Mark, with a crazed scientist he hired, have turned the Folly into a secret lab and are experimenting with rabbits and myxomatosis.  I guess that was a real virus that killed tons of rabbits in the english countryside.  Their goal is to get rid of rabbits, which eat the crops, once and for all.  To do this, they need to create a rabbit that is immune to the disease (yes, this makes no sense and doesn't in the book).  They end up creating giant carnivorous rabbits.  We get lots of semi-gruesome eatings of various people, an intrepid journalist who is having an affair with sir Mark's wife (and an even more convoluted backstory involving sir Mark's first wife, whom he stole from the journalist then turned into a junkie—I guess to give the journalist some more motivation but it really has little role in the book) and a small cast of other characters, including a police sergeant and a gamekeeper.

When the gamekeeper was first introduced early in the book (he is resistant to Sir Mark's aggressive plans to modernize his farms), I had high hopes that he might be the protagonist.  Unfortunately, he ends up being a secondary character.  Even worse, he makes a stupid blunder that is clearly put in place to create some action.  He and the journalist hide out in a blind with a recently killed lamb to attract the rabbits.  Their plan succeeds and they finally observe the rabbits in action, but when they go out to inspect the shredded carcass, the gamekeeper trips and shoots the journalist in the leg!  This is an obvious device to get the rabbits to come back (they are attracted by the smell of blood) so we get an action scene.  So retarded. What kind of gamekeeper would ever trip in a hole in a site they had carefully prepared and even worse would have their gun unbroken or the safety off so they would shoot a compatriot in the leg.  This scene offended my sensibilities to the point that I almost stopped reading the book.  If you can't write a thriller with everybody being efficient, just don't bother, okay.

Friday, December 09, 2011

58. Deadly Welcome by John D. Macdonald

Courtesy of Vintage Paperbacks
This was one of the paperbacks I found on a weekend trip to the Laurentians this summer.  I've read a lot of John D. Macdonald's, both from his Travis McGee series as well as his stand-alone thrillers.  I love his books, but a writer as prolific as he, with such a strong style, can tend to become a bit repetitive if you read too many too close together.  Also, his books are very easy to find, used and cheap.  For these reasons, I tend to not buy his books any more, preferring to hold them back in case of emergency.  In this case, it was the original paperback and thus probably has some value (except the guy stuck a $3 price tag with masking tape on the cover-Argh!) and it has been quite a while since I last read a John D. Macdonald (according to this blog, not since May 2007!).

The story here is about an agent who is pulled from his Venezuela post to go back to his own small Florida town to try and convince an old scientist to get out of his funk and get back in the game working on the weapons research that he abandoned for a beautiful young woman who was recently murdered.  The agent has a rich and troubled past with this small town and the murdered woman as well, so his espionage assignment also includes his own personal challenges.

Macdonald is excellent at creating corrupt small Florida towns and that was one of the things in the blurb that attracted me to this book.  I wasn't disappointed. The psychotic sheriff was particularly well (and disturbingly) portrayed.  He rules the town with expert and scientifically sexual beatings with his billy club, breaking the spirit of anyone who might be a troublemaker.  He gives the agent a solid working over his first day in town and that becomes motivation for the reader and the agent to get their own back.

Unfortunately, it never really builds up into a rich climax.  Instead of the whole town being corrupted, the sheriff is really the sole bad guy.  There is also not a lot of mystery around the murder of the woman, though it is drawn out for quite a while.  The atmosphere and the characters are quite good, but  I suspect it's the mix of the espionage side with the personal history side that didn't quite gel.  It might have been better had it been one story or the other (which Macdonald later did do).  So all in all not terrible, but not one of his best.