Wednesday, February 29, 2012

10. The Words of my Roaring by Robert Kroetsch

I cannot even remember why I picked this book up.  I think it was early on in our Maritimes trip and at one of the first used book stores in PEI, so I was a little overeager (like women or fish, you need to let them come to you).  I was interested in it because it was Canadian and looked like a fun read.

It's a story of a man, Johnnie J. Backstrom, running in the Prairies during the Depression and a drought, running for office. His main opponent is an old doctor, who is also his mentor and father figure.  Backstrom himself is quite reckless and irresponsible, constantly drinking, spending money he doesn't have and neglecting his pregnant wife.  The whole story is told from his perspective and I guess we are supposed to sympathize with him.  His big move is to spontaneously predict that it will rain the day of the election and then he spends the rest of the book wrestling with the attention and potential success this gives him, while getting drunk and sleeping with the doctor's hot daughter back from an eastern college.

It's an enjoyable read, but doesn't really resolve itself in the end.  It seemed a bit of a celebration of masculine excess, without excusing it, but just lacked a concrete narrative for me to really like it personally.

One thing to note is the sticker with the author's name on the lower-right-hand corner.  Wow did somebody fuck up the printing of this book!  How pissed would you be to have been that author?  I can only imagine the conversations that went on behind the scenes when this book hit the shelves.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

9. The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

This is the sequel to The Crystal Cave and while I had been initially reluctant to continue on with the series, I found this nice coronet version that compliments my copy of the first one.  It arose next in line on my on-deck shelf and I dove in.

To my good fortune, I would add.  I loved this book. The first was very enjoyable (my reluctance to not continue is due to the vast number of books I still have yet to read and thus not ready to commit to multi-series books unless I really have to), but this one surpasses it in my opinion. It's about Merlin's quest to protect and raise young Arthur so that he shall be ready to become king when the time comes.  What I loved about this book is that Merlin just kicks so much ass, but he does it almost entirely without using force or violence.  His tools are wisdom, strategy, diplomacy, guile, discourse, negotiation, charisma and his reputation, all slightly enhanced by his magic.  I found it absorbing throughout with several tense, gripping moments.  Arthur's importance is that he is foreseen to properly unite Britain, and though subtle, there is also an inspiring undertone of British patriotism throughout the book that is also quite moving.

One element that troubled me was the portrayal of Morgause, who in Stewart's telling, is the evil sorcerous who may be Arthur's eventual undoing.  I'm sure feminists have dealt with the character in the myths.  Here she is given no mercy, shown to be utterly corrupt almost from the get-go.  All the elements from his lineage that mix to make greatness in Arthur, mix into his sister to make evil.  Given that Mary Stewart is a woman, most of whose novels I believe have a female protagonist, I wonder if it is okay to question her portrayal of Morgause as a missed opportunity.  If you care about those kinds of things.  As a potential antagonist (her role is revealed late into the book), she is pretty scary.

Great stuff and now I'll definitely read the third one when a nice Coronet version crosses my path.

Monday, February 20, 2012

8. Fireball by John Christopher

I'm less enthusiastic about John Christopher's young adult stuff.  It's not that it's not good (the opposite in fact, it ranks among the classics), but it lacks the underlying anxiety that I enjoy so much about his earlier, adult fiction.  The YA books are also quicker reads, with simpler, condensed narratives.  They are not totally fulfilling for me as a reader.  As a collector, though, I have decided with the conclusion of Fireball that I will definitely be keeping an eye out for his YA fiction to add to my bookshelf.  When I finished Fireball, I thought it was a one-off (like Wild Jack) but it turns out to be a part of a trilogy as well, though one, I suspect, that wasn`t originally planned, as the three books are so far apart and the stories so different.

The basic premise is two cousins, one American the other British are spending the summer in the english countryside when they see a fireball floating in the air.  They go to it and the next thing they know (after some discovery) they are in an alternate earth where the Roman Empire never declined.  They become involved in a Christian revolution and when that turns sour, they head with some new allies to the New World.  I kind of got into it, especially the exploration of the world.  The coda is their voyage to the new world and that is the part that really intrigued me (thus my interest in picking up the sequel, New Found Land).  There was also some stuff at the beginning that suggested that their world was not in a great state ("the television news had been on, showing yet another scene of mob violence somewhere").  I'm curious to see if they get back to their world and any of those hints are played out.

Christopher's adolescent protagonists are often kind of whiny pills.  The American cousin, Brad, is superior to the British kid, Simon, in the ways that matter to teenage boys.  He is also more idealistic and moral.  At times, though you are in the thoughts of Simon, one finds him a bit of a pill.  There isn't a whole lot of arc for him either, at least in the first book.  He just kind of ends up following Brad's lead, after initial resistance, because Brad is usually right.  British inferiority complex on the part of Christopher or a sucesful technique to appeal to the minds of his readers?  It's hard to say, but it is noticeable.  I'm also interested in seeing if this dynamic develops in the later books.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

7. Flight into Danger by Arthur Haley and John Castle

This is another book I picked up in the Maritimes.  I've learned since finishing it that it is the novelization of the teleplay of a very succesful 1956 TV movie on CBC that launched Arthur Haley's career.  I don't know if this is the first, but it certainly strikes me as the classic tale of the amateur or retired pilot forced to land a passenger airplane.  Here, a severe case of food poisoning in the salmon that is served for dinner jeopardizes the health of many passengers as well is incapacitating both pilots.  Luckily, there is a doctor on the plane and even more luckily, George Benson, a truck salesman who flew fighter planes in WWII.  This is a very straightforward, tight and exciting little thriller.  There is no bigger plot or unexpected twists, no real drama among the passengers or the ground control.  Just a man who hasn't flown for 13 years and only flew single-engine fighters when he did being coached from the ground by an expert pilot while passengers are slowly dying and the odds of him actually landing the bird are extremely low.  I found it quite thrilling and tore through the second half.  The lesson here is that you don't need a lot of bells and whistles if the story is exciting and you can tell it in an effective way.  Good stuff.

(Note, while I found several images online of the same cover, they were from Pan books.  This Totem imprint was published by Collins and sold, I believe, only in Canada.  Here is the little blurb from them on the inside back cover (backispiece?):

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

6. The Fiend by Margaret Millar

Ah yes, the great Margaret Millar.  I felt like a bit of a fiend simply reading this book in public.  How freaky is that cover!  I'm a huge Patricia Highsmith fan, but I'm believing more and more that Millar belongs in her class and is maybe even superior in some respects.  Millar is less clinical.  She seems to have some affection for her characters, though she is absolutely unsparing in the way she exposes their weaknesses and flaws.  It gives a bit of warmth to her books that make them perhaps a richer read.  Boy is she unsparing, especially towards women (another similarity to Highsmith).  A smarter person than me with more time should dedicate at least a long article, if not a book on comparing the two authors and their works.

The Fiend is ostensibly the story of a mentally damaged individual, Charlie Gowen, who lives with his older brother.  There was an incident with a child that happened in his past, sent him to a ward and made him the town pariah.  Today, though, at least on the surface, he is more or less coping and the few people he does interact with consider him more or less "fixed", if they are even aware of his history.  His brother, though, has basically sacrificed his life to take care of him and he is highly attuned to any potential weirdness or strayings.  And Charlie is straying.  He has noticed a particular little girl, Jessie a little daredevil, and is started to become obsessed with her safety.  He wants to "protect" her.  Millar draws out his pathology very gradually (as well as the details of his original crime), so you never really know how far he will go or the exact nature of what it is he will ultimately do.  It's nerve-wracking!  The question of whether he can exist in society is on the table and you do feel some sympathy for him.

Charlie's story is actually the center of a much richer plot, involving the little girl's parents and the two other families that are close to her: the childless couple of whom the wife is obsessed with Jessie and the bitter, misandrynist divorcée who is the mother to Jessie's best friend.  It is in the portrayal of these people where we start to see the real human ugliness.  It would be simplistic to pit the seemingly normal people against Charlie, but that isn't what Millar does here.  Everybody gets their brain opened equally and revealed to the reader.  Charlie's is just much more inconsistent and difficult to figure out.  But they are all pretty messed up in one way or another.

I suspect that a professional psychologist would probably find some of the analysis of Charlie's mind possibly a bit dated or erroneous.  There were some parts that seemed a bit facile (though a lot of those came from the perspective of a character, so it's hard to say if Millar was reflecting her own take or what she thought the character would think).  There was also a small side development between the divorcee and her lawyer that seemed forced and unnecessary.  But otherwise this is a pretty excellent book that keeps you hooked right to the end.

Monday, February 13, 2012

5. The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun by Sebastien Japrisot

Finally starting to get my reading pace back again.  Still not quite where I was last year, but I am feeling that joy of really getting into a book.  I apologize for my lameness in not getting back to those of you who have so kindly commented (and often quite wittily) in a timely manner.  I hope that my growing reading energy will also translate to more responsible blogging behaviours.

I'm quite happy with my good luck in my recent cheap and free book finds.  Quite often when you take a flyer on an author or book you've never heard of, you can suffer.  I am not able to not complete a fictional book once I've started it and because of that have suffered through some painful reading in the past (The Folly by David Anne is a recent example).  That's the fear that is nestled in your head when you are staring at a cool-looking cover.  Sometimes I'll buy the book but then keep on putting off reading it, so that it is always staring at me from my on-deck shelf, making me feel guilty and questioning whether I have the intestinal fortitude to be a true book nerd.

 The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun is an example of a complete guess.  I found it at the S.W. Welch sidewalk sale for 50 cents.  It looked very intriguing and had a cool cover.  I'd never heard of Japrisot and was mildly concerned that it was a translation. 

It turned out to be a very good read.  It felt a bit like The Red Right Hand as if it had been written by Simenon.  It's the story of a neurotic young Parisian woman who gets asked to drive her boss and his wife to the airport in their fancy Thunderbird.  Instead of returning it to their house as she is supposed to, she decides on a whim to take it on a holiday drive.  Her head is full of her own neurotic and insecure thoughts.  She is a weird girl, seemingly attractive but isolated and in the habit of lying to her work colleagues about her life (and particularly her vacation plans).  As she travels through the outskirts of Paris and the small towns along the vacation route, things start to get weird.  Someone attacks her in a gas station bathroom and when she comes to, her hand is injured and she isn't sure for how long she had been out.  Even weirder, people start acting like they had already come across her.  The reader as well as the heroine are really not sure what the hell is going on.  Is she insane?  Is she the victim of some bizarre, improbable plot?  It's a compelling journey across the social and physical landscape of late-60s France, with lots of amoral people at every stop.  As the mystery gets weirder and more convoluted, we also learn more about the girl. 

Worth checking out.  I'd read another of this guy's books for sure.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

4. The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall

I had what I believe was the first Quiller book on my shelf for years and I finally gave it away.  I couldn't remember why I never got into it. I found this one in a pile of recycling and refuse at the corner of the school near my house.  It was being thrown out with a bunch of other books from the library.  I started reading it and I think I know now why I never got started with the other one.  If The Tango Briefing is any indication of the Quiller series, it is some pretty hardcore nerd-espionage.  Nothing can be simply done without Hall explaining in insider espionage language the background, the ramifications, the various potential outcomes, several other instances of the same maneuver having been done (generally unsuccessfully) and how it will impact the behaviour of the "opposition".  It's kind of like reading about a football game where each play is prefaced with a litany of statistics and comparisons.  It's cool if you are into that sort of thing, but can be a bit trying for the reader that just wants some football action.  In case you think I'm exaggerating, the act of flicking a lit match into a car's gas tank takes over two and a half pages of explanation!

Furthermore, he writes in an almost poetic style at times, using incomplete sentences and jumping around in time without being really explicit about it.  So if you aren't paying close attention, it can be easy to get lost and not even be clear where the protagonist is geographically at any given point.  This reader was not paying close attention in the first third of the book or so.  However, once I did finally get an understanding of his style and once I got caught up in the story, I did pay closer attention and actually got quite into.

My critique above are not really criticisms, because Hall is a skilled writer and the story that goes down was really cool.  It's simply a question of personal preference.  You see some popular modern writers try to write like this (Jeffrey Deaver comes to mind and Lee Child as well).  Once you read a Quiller book, their efforts seem sort of cartoony and overblown.  The Tango Briefing was intense.  The story centers around a mysterious marking in the middle of the Algerian desert, some kind of aircraft, discovered by British surveillance.  Quiller is sent out to establish a base and make his way to the aircraft without being discovered.  Unfortunately, when he gets to Algiers, he finds that two previous agents ("executives" as they are called) have already been compromised: one killed and the other a broken, nervous wreck after having been followed by a sniper for several days.  Just the process of setting up a way to get to the aircraft in the desert takes up about half the book, with Quiller negotiating every step to lose "tags" (people following him) and avoid alerting listening posts and other sensitive alerts that make up the world espionage network. The "opposition" is so faceless that it might as well be a computer network.

When he does get to the desert, he has to find the wreck, discover what is so special about it and get out.  The whole section in the desert is really intense and believable.  It gave me a strong feeling of how frightening it would be to be exposed in the middle of the sahara where even if you had enough water, you couldn't drink it fast enough to prevent the evaporation from your body.

I'm not sure if I will rush after any more Quiller books.  They are a little too detailed and complex for my simplistic mind.  I would, however, strongly recommend them to anyone who considers themselves a hardcore espionage fiction enthusiast.

Friday, February 03, 2012

3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle definitely lives up to its reputation as a classic.  It's the story of a lower-echelon mafia guy juggling a mix of gun-running and informing while trying to navigate his way between the law and his colleagues in crime.  It's told almost entirely in dialogue, though the crisp, intense bank robberies are narrated.  It's the kind of book you should really try to read without a lot of breaks.  Due to the dialogue and the lack of clear identification of some of the speakers at the beginning part of the book, the reader can get a bit lost (or at least this distracted reader).  But once you start to grasp the overall form of the narrative, the story flows forward and you can't stop turning the pages.  This is a dark, realistic and gripping read.  Strongly recommended.  I am looking forward to checking out the movie now.