Monday, December 30, 2013

26. Bold Rider by Luke Short

Not the copy I read.
I really should have some system for noting where I found books, because some have stayed so long in my on-deck shelf that I have entirely forgotten their origins.  Such is the case with Bold Rider.  I don't read tons of westerns, but I like to dip my toe in the water every now and then as it is usually satisfying.  The cover and date of this one appealed to me.  It looked like the kind of paperback western that would be quickly and easily purchased by the common man looking for a good read back in the 70s, but it was actually written in 1938 and so has some potential for pedigree and solid writing syntax.

It's funny, though, because if I hadn't known, I never would have guessed that it had been written that long ago.  The story has a slightly cartoonish feel to it, where the main character is a roguish good guy who is in constant conflict with the local army garrison.  There is a highly unrealistic over-the-top train stunt that would not be out of place in today's blockbuster movies.  Finally, the ending is also a bit too easy and happy.  All that was juxtaposed against what was otherwise quite brutal and realistic western stuff.  The bad guy was nasty and people get killed and it's real.  So it was kind of an inconsistent read and unsatisfying because of that, but not uninteresting.

The story involved the hero pretending to be someone else to transport a gold shipment from a mine so that he could steal it, while he knew that the other transporter was also a criminal who had posed as well. This is all wrapped up in the protagonist's history and how he was falsely accused of a crime by the cattle baron for whom the gold was being transported.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

25. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


I wanted to write a longer review, but I just need to get something down here so that I can move forward.

I have been struggling with my reading and am thus casting about for different approaches that will keep my nose in a book and not an attention-shattering tablet.  I thought one long book that I could slowly work my way through might work and two friends recommended Shantaram.  It looked glossy and digestible enough that it would also be easy consuming, like a big blockbuster action movie.  What I didn't realize is that Shantaram is not only a dreaded "trade paperback", it's also a chick book!  My good friend Lantzvillager, with whom I share many literary tastes, took great pleasure in ridiculing me for reading Shantaram.  And thus I found myself torn between friends, questioning my own identity!

I exaggerate for humour, but the truth is that throughout this book I kept going back and forth on whether it should be praised or condemned.  The narrative is great, right up my alley: heroin-addict armed robber escapes from brutal Australian prison and flees to India where with his street smarts and the craziness of the Mumbai crime world begins a life of adventure.  The problem is that all of this is of course in service to his own journey of personal discovery.  So that at the end of each chapter of entertaining craziness, there would have to be several paragraphs of reflection and bad metaphors ("and with each bullet wound, the river of pain that is life reminded me of my own pain and blah blah).  Worse, the whole thing is such an insane white man fantasy.  As a white man, I'm all for white man fantasies of going into one of the craziest most other cities in the world, learning all their languages, getting down with the super poor people in the slums and hanging with the baddest ass gangster bosses in the fancy clubs, but please don't try and frame it in all this self-actualization and awareness bullshit to try and make it more than it is.  [And one part just goes way beyond the pale.  When he is making his way up with the big Mumbai mafia bosses, he is given the responsibility for the currency exchange side of the business.  In an aside, he mentions how he has introduced computers into their business to improve their efficiency.  Please.  Australian ex-con is going to show the Indians how to use computers.  Yeah, right.]

The problem with the above criticism is that while this is not based on a true story at all (according to the other), he really did flee an Australian prison and lived in Mumbai and still lives there today.  So the guy probably is kind of a badass.  Usually when someone is full of shit, you find out about it on the internet pretty quickly, but it does seem like Gregory David Roberts has led a pretty extraordinary and courageous life.  His white man fantasy was no fantasy.

As you can see, I kept going back and forth, though I also kept turning the pages.  The last section, where he goes to Afghanistan, drags on a bit long, but overall it did deliver the kind of reading experience I had hoped for.  And got me at least halfway to my goal in 2013!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

24. Death of a Thin-skinned Animal by Patrick Alexander

[I'm actually writing this review on Jan 4th, 2014.  I finished the book sometime in the fall of 2013 and then only read 2 other books for the rest of the year.  All to be explained in my year-end wrap-up.]

I picked this book up at a closing-down sale at a used bookstore on Broadway in the Kitsilano district in Vancouver late this summer.  It's a 1976 espionage thriller about a spy who was sent on a mission to assassinate an African dictator, who got doublecrossed and sent to jail.  In the ensuing years, Britain decides that it must make friends with this dictator.  The spy then escapes and decides to carry out his mission.  The story takes place in London from the point of view of the people working in the agency (and in particular the handler who sent the spy on the original assassination mission) while the dictator is visiting and they learn that the spy is making his way back to England to complete his mission.  It's a great premise, with a nice structure of the current cat and mouse game and a slow unravelling of the captured spy's backstory.  Right up until the end, Alexander succeeds in making this premise live up to its potential.  The anxiety of the spymasters, the politicians and the police involved is very satisfying to the reader, as you know they were all involved in some way or another with the betrayal.  The portrayal of all the various players is also rich, especially the educated, amoral and decadent dictator.  Where it bogs down is in the love story, which, as is so often the case in British stories from this period, is overly pessimistic and faux-modern (in the sense that everyone acts like they are so modern but still follow strict gender and class roles).  British upper class men were such unter-mensch losers in this period (same annoying patheticness that dogs Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  So of course we have to have a forcedly ironic downbeat ending of an otherwise cool story.  Despite my harping on it, this was a good read and I would definitely pick up something else by him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

23. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

That weird mask was because the nose was
stuffed with strong-smelling spices to ward off
the disease and the stench of dead bodies.
I have a general rule, which is to try and read as little as possible about a book before I actually start reading it.  I especially avoid all the business printed on the book itself that is not the actual story, like the blurb on the back, critic's quotes, the author's bio and forwards.  I am always tempted, as I am easily distracted.  So this practice is a form of self-discipline to get me through the book.  All that other stuff is a little bit like desert.  The big reason, though, is spoilers.  I know editors have to sell books, but it is just selfish and irresponsible the way they give away all the cool stuff on the back cover.

With a classic like A Journal of the Plague Year, the temptation to read the foreword (by J.H. Plumb, Cambride) and even to go to the internet was strong.  I wanted to find out the history behind the narrative as it is just so fascinating and crazy what happened.  However, spoilers were just not a concern for me in this case.  Well when I did finish it and read the Foreword, I was totally blown away to find out there was a HUGE spoiler (explained at the end of the post) and one that would have completely changed my perception of this work had I known ahead of time.  It was a great pleasure to be surprised in this way and this experiences reinforces my dedication to my rule.

Victims would run through the streets, naked and crazed
with pain and the madness of the disease.
So on to the book itself.  It is a first-person recollection of the year 1665 when the Black Plague swept through London, killing tens of thousands and (as you can well imagine) throwing the city into an upheaval.  We've all heard about it to some degree or another, most limited (like me) to Monty Python and a few scraps of memory from high school history classes.  It was pretty hard core!  It's hard to imagine the way London was back then, even before there was a plague.  There were open sewers and people just threw their garbage out into the street.  When the plague hit, thousands of people were dying per week.  The whole "bring out yer dead!" thing really happened.  The book, though, stresses that despite some mistakes, the city managers actually handled the situation relatively well, creating policies that ensured that ensured that there were no dead bodies left on the street.  They also managed to ensure that enough trade remained open so that the poor who remained in the city didn't starve.  One of the controversial policies was the act forcing families to be shut up in their homes if one of their members or staff showed signs of the sickness.  Guards were hired to stand outside their door to ensure that nobody left and nobody came in (which also helped create employment).  Defoe narrates some great stories of families trying to sneak out, or attack the guard.  Several were murdered.

Structurally, the book is lacking.  There isn't really an order and it goes all over the place in time and subject.  Defoe often gets started on something and then says that he'll say more about that later.  This happens a few too many times so that the reader loses track.  And dude, chapters!  The whole thing is one long flow and it makes it hard to put it down and pick it up again.  (Oh yeah, right, they hadn't been invented yet.)  The writing style is rich and arch, made me laugh out loud at times
However, in general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burned perfumes, incense, benjamin, rozin, and sulphur in their rooms close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder; others caused large fires to be made all day and all night for several days and nights; by the same token that two or three were pleased to set their houses on fire, and so effectually sweetened them by burning them down to the ground...
 Dry British humour in its earliest days.

A really enjoyable read that gave me a strong interest in the Black Death, which led to lots of fascinating internet reading.

ADDENDUM: new (and avid) reader and commenter Kelly Robinson (check out her great blog Book Dirt) reminded me in her comment below about how Apocalyptic this novel is.  It reminded me strongly of the British authors from the 60s and 70s and especially John Christopher's Death of Grass. A big part of the book is about the exodus out of London, with the issues of the advantage of wealth and class and having to decide when (or whether) to leave.  He also recounts a tale of a small group of workers who banded together to travel in the country and how they were refused to enter by certain towns.  I wonder if this is something that is part of British culture that has been passed down with the various disasters that have befallen London in history.


Daniel Defoe was 5 years old when this London plague happened!  He wrote the book as a work of fiction based on several non-fictional tracts and his own childhood memories and tales.  The entire time I was reading it, I thought it was his own recollection.  Looks like he was a darned good writer!

Monday, August 26, 2013

22. Dale of the Mounted Sub Hunt by Joe Holliday

Here is a nice little piece of post-war Canadian propaganda.  As a physical artifact, it was just so beautiful that I had to pick it up, despite it's beat-up condition.  How great is that illustration on the front!  It's almost Hergé-esque in its geometry and soft-focus, with a filter of 50s modern abstraction.  What is going on on the cover here actually happens in the book as well.  Unfortunately, the book itself is quite boring, in keeping with its Canadianness.  The adventure part of it is simply a frame for the author to repeat paragraphs of information that seem quoted verbatim from Fisheries Canada pamphlets.  It is divided into two parts, the first taking place in Atlantic Canada and the second in my old stomping grounds, Nanaimo! 

In both cases, Dale goes undercover.  In the first, he joins up with a fishing crew.  This section was actually not so boring, as it described the fish-trapping techniques used in the Bay of Fundy.  Wide nets would be installed in the ground at low tide and then when the tide came up and went out again, the men would unload the traps with all the fish stuck in them.  The mystery starts here when a body is discovered in one of the traps.  Actually, looking back, this was a pretty cool start.  From there, though, it all gets kind of boring, at least narrative-wise.  The problem is the writing style, so that even when we get away from factual info and statistics about the Atlantic Fisheries, it is all still dull and stilted. 

In the second half, Dale takes on the disguise of a young applicant for the Fisheries department in their research center at the West Coast Biological Center in Departure Bay.  Here, we have lots of optimistic enthusiasm about all the science being applied to the fishing industry and how it is going to make it even easier for Canada to deplete the oceans.

What is fascinating, and depressing, about this book, is how there is not a single mention of conservation.  Everything that the government is doing in the Atlantic and the Pacific side, is made to increase yield.  There is an oblique mention of ensuring the future existence of fish populations when they mention poaching and efforts to reduce it.  This book was written just a few decades before the total collapse of the entire Atlantic Fisheries and you can see the profound ignorance and greed that was the dominant culture of the government and the industry at the time.  Not that it's changed much today, sadly.

I scanned the back cover as well, which has examples of the entire line.  It's a shame that these weren't better written, because they are quite beautifully designed and would make a great collection of Canadiana for a bookshelf.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

21. The Moonraker Mutiny by Antony Trew

These 1970's manly action books put out by Fontana were really where I began with my adult reading.  I don't remember specifically who introduced me to Desmond Bagley, it must have been my dad, but he was my favourite in my high school and college years.  Once I finish re-reading the Parker series, I may go back and read his books again.  I also discovered Duncan Kyle through Fontana as well.  They are manly adventure books, but generally written with some intelligence and that British WWII mentality that doesn't have to get in your face about being badass.  So when I see one, I will always give it a scan, which is what happened at the sadly closing down Blackberry books in Kitsilano where I found The Moonraker Mutiny.  I mean how can I resist this cover?  At the very least, I know it will give my wife something to snicker about.

The Moonraker Mutiny turned out to be quite an enjoyable read, with a more complex storyline than I had expected from the blurb.  It's about a merchant freighter with a once competent but now broken and badly alchoholic captain and its sketchy crew who are making a run from Australia to Cape Town when they get caught in a hurricane.  Things go bad in many ways, leaving the ship engineless and badly damaged.  The crew, led by the treacherous and disrespectful Italian first mate, decides to abandon ship, leaving the captain, his neice, his steward and one young mechanic.  We follow the stories of both groups, as well as the sleazy owner back in London and another smaller merchant ship coming from Antarctica whose fate becomes entwined in a really interesting way with Moonraker's.

And that is what pushed this book from pretty good to really damned enjoyable to me.  The first half was decent, with a nice range of characters (though a few stereotypes such as the aforementioned first mate), but I thought the story was going to be either about the mutiny or the ship in the storm.  It turns out that was merely a jumping off point and a lot of other cool things happened.  I didn't realize that even up in the modern days the law of salvage at sea is still valid and there are boats that just trawl the sea looking for abandoned ships and who will get aggressive with one another for salvage rights.  It makes for some pretty cool sea action, especially when you are dealing with a crippled tanker that still has the barely coherent captain aboard.

Sigh, one more author to add to the list.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

20. Star King by Jack Vance

I have read a few other Jack Vance novels and enjoyed them but they never grabbed me the way they have some others.  I respect his massive contribution to the world (both in fictional writing and in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby as his ideas about magic were fundamental to the way it was designed in Dungeons & Dragons).  Many people have said that I should check out the Demon Prince series and so I could not resist picking up this paperback (which is also a beautiful Daw paperback and was in such good condition, appearing almost unread, that I was loathe to even open it).

Well it turns out they were right!  There is still something distancing to me about Vance's approach and prose, but Star King was super cool and super engrossing.  I think it helped that it was the first of his books that has a very straightforward plot, so that while it meanders, especially at the beginning, and while there are all kinds of asides that are not relevant to the story (though do build a rich sense of the universe), the book always presses forward and you want to find out what happens.  It also has a strong moral core, which is something I've found lacking in his other books.  It's not that I need a moral core in a piece of fiction, but in Vance's case, it helps to bridge somewhat the distancing effect of his prose style.  Finally, there are some really good and detailed fight scenes, which I always appreciate. These were so detailed and well mapped-out that they could have been choreographed for a movie.

The story here is about Kirth Gersen who finds himself on a remote tavern far out in the Beyond, the part of the universe that is not governed by law.  He meets a "locater" who has discovered a paradisiacal garden planet, but who has discovered that his employer is Malagate the Woe, an infamous intergalactic slaver.  The locater does not want to reveal the location of his discovery because he has been enchanted by its innocent beauty and doesn't want to see it destroyed.  Well this poor dude, quickly gets killed by three very nasty characters (and a rich, flamboyant group of badguys they are indeed) who show up at the bar, including Malagate himself, though he is not actually seen.  When they leave, they accidently take Kirth's ship instead of the murdered locator's, which allows Kirth to mess with them.  Well, it turns out that Kirth has specifically been on the hunt for Malagate, that he has actually been trained his entire life to hunt down and kill the Demon Princes (of which Malagate is one) who destroyed his village when he was just a child.

So that is really my kind of plot.  As I said, it does meander and at times gets a bit bogged down, particularly in a long section of logic/deduction in trying to figure out which of three characters back in the civilized part of the universe is actually Malagate.  But there is enough coolness along the way, in the story moving forward; the rich and wacky locations and characters and finally in Gersen himself, who is a real badass.  I also like that Vance is really not a nerd.  He doesn't waste time fretting over whether or not you can fly through space in a timely manner.  He just goes to where the coolness needs to go and yet does it in such a way that it feels more or less realistic within the logic of the setting.  I also enjoyed the way he portrays the style of this universe, as people can modify their bodies to any degree and change their skin colour, so that every character has a different palate going on.  I will definitely be hunting down the rest of this series.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

19. Nice Fillies Finish Last by Brett Halliday

Really you couldn't ask for a better combo of cover and title to incite snickers and contempt from the modern literary set.  I'm pretty sure this might be the first Mike Shayne book I've read.  I didn't have a high regard for the series before I read this.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the book more intelligent and complex than I would have suspected.  In particular, the author had a very deft way of portraying his characters as one way in the beginning and then revealing their true corruption as the story went on. I found myself actually believing their initial stories and found myself taken by them later on in the book.  The detective work is quite good as well.  The framing of the story and Shayne himself are fairly standard stuff, with him being super cool and having all the neatest gadgets, but the meat of the story, I would say, was a step above what I expected and leads me to keep an eye out for other Mike Shayne books.

Here, Shayne's gambling buddy and reporter gets a hot tip on the carriage races from a usually reliable stable hand.  It's a complex affair involving betting on three races in the day.  The reporter convinces Shayne to come out with him at two in the morning to meet the stable hand and back him on the tip.  The guy doesn't show up and the two guys write it off as a bum tip.  Until the stable hand shows up dead, of alchohol poisoning.  This leads us into a complex mix surrounding a wealthy stable owner, his wife and a satyr-like jockey (and several other characters).  There is some dark stuff here, especially at the end, as the true nastiness of what already was kind of a nasty relationship is revealed.  There is some good action too.  My only problem is that I don't know anything about gambling on the horses and the complexities surrounding the betting and the scams behind it were lost to me.  Nevertheless, this filly rode well and I look forward to future installments.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

18. The Explorer by W. Somerset Maugham

For some reason, I have a hard time getting W. Somerset Maugham into my head.  I get him (or is it her?) mixed up with Evelyn Waugh and Armistaud Maupin.  I really need to make the effort to do a bit of researcha and figure out who each one is.  I guess it is just because there names all sound similar, but it's also that Maugham seems so well known, but doesn't seem to have a specifically famous book, style, genre or period attached to him. This problem is so acute for me that I actually wrote this paragraph initally about Evelyn Waugh!

The Explorer is the story of Lucy Allerton, a young heiress to a large estate whose disollute father has run to the ground.  She is strong and selfless, loves her father unquestionably, even when she learns of all his faults.  She pins the hopes of her family's ressurection on her brother.  When the father is arrested for fraud, thus ruining the family's reputation as well, the brother is forced to join the expedition of an intrepid African explorer.  This explorer and the heroine up to this point had fallen in love, but she refused his hand in marriage because she could not love him until her family's name was restored.  Complications ensue on the voyage and the the explorer is left with a heavy burden and difficult moral choice.

I picked up the book because of the title in the hope that there would be some good colonial adventurism.  There was, but most of it was narrated by characters within the book, after the fact.  It was interesting nonetheless, as the explorer is portrayed as a hero, liberating the local tribespeople from the oppression of Arab slavery (I am thinking that he is supposed to be modeled after a real-world figure of the time).  This all seems good, if fantastic, but then his ultimate goal is to turn the territory over to the good hands of the British Empire, for the uitimate betterment of the native people!  Oh well, better than the Belgians at least.

It's an enjoyable read, very well-written, but ultimately a bit simplistic.  It is basically a romance, with the barrier being the aforementioned moral dilemma and a female character who is a bit one-dimensional.  This latter stands out because the rest of the characters are portrayed with nuance and richness.  I suspect a book like this was quite popular at the time, as it reads a bit like its period equivalent of today's best-seller, addressing popular themes in an easily-digestible way without challenging the average reader's thinking.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

17. The Mistress by Carter Brown

Carter Brown is one of those crime fiction authors whose existence can be discouraging both for the reader and the writer.  He was actually a British guy living in Australia and he cranked out 332 (!) novels under the Carter Brown pseudonym, not to mention dozens of westerns, sci-fi and romances under other names.  His books were ubiquitous in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, said to be a favorite of JFK.  What's particularly distressing is not just the sheer quantity (at one point, he was contracted to write two short and one long novel a month), but that he was also subject to painful writer's block!.  It makes the potential writer realize how much writing is just hard, hard work.

The Mistress begins with a sheriff's niece found shot dead on the front steps of the sherrif's house in Pine City, a small town somewhere not too far from Vegas.  The protagonist is the brash lieutenant, Al Wheeler, who always second-guesses his chief's simplistic solution.  In this case, it's the independent bookmaker who had just been ran out of Vegas by the syndicate, had taken up shop in Pine City and in whom the niece had fallen in with.  He is too obvious of a culprit for the lieutenant, who starts digging deeper.  It's a fun ride, with some good detecting and an interesting set up.  I correctly guessed who the murderer was early in, because he was telegraphed as such an asshole, even though not obviously connected to the crime at the beginning.  One of the principle characters is a top-shelf stripper, whose abnormal routine was quite fun (she appears on stage just for a moment in the spotlight completely nude and then comes back dressed and starts the dance).  However, that she quickly hops in bed with Wheeler and basically is in love with him for the entire second half of the book was pushing even my tolerance for unbelievable genre and period sexual mores. 

So it's a decent book and that is what makes Carter Brown so discouraging for the reader.  It's not garbage, it's actually good enough that you wouldn't mind reading more.  But there are just so many and nothing that really stands out about them that gives you anything to grab on to.  Is there a highlight or a particular series I should look into?  It's all so much that one kind of just wants to ignore his entire ouevre.  Though interestingly, I rarely come across old copies of Carter Brown.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

16. Broke Down Engine and other troubles with machines by Ron Goulart

Another find from the back alley pile of apartment stuff that just keeps on giving, this is a collection of short stories by Ron Goulart, a prolific writer from the 60s and 70s and onwards about whom I knew nothing until now.  The cover just intrigued me at the time.  The style of these stories makes me think of Omni and Playboy rather than science fiction magazines and rightfully so as several of these stories were published in Playboy.  Theys tend to be of two types, either taking place in some kind of dystopic near-future LA where machiness and man combine to make nightmarish bureaucracies (hospitals that don't let you leave, food agencies that decide who lives and dies) or in far off galaxies and futures.  In both cases, the tone is similar, light, wry and not taking itself too seriously, despite often fairly nasty situations.  At first, I found myself a bit disconnected (which is not unusual for me with short stories), but as I worked my way through, I enjoyed the read more and more.  The themes here, though based on very primitive extrapolations of technology, age well.  Human stupidity tends to get magnified rather than mitigated by more powerful tools.  Cruelty is a truism and not worth making a big moral stink about (though defnitely worth avoiding).  We get so caught up in the moment, especially in today's media environment, that we tend to think that all the issues we are freaking out about now are new.  Reading a book like this reminds me that they are not new at all and that guys like Ron Goulart were pointing them out to the rest of us decades ago.  Good stuff.

Monday, July 08, 2013

15. The Croquet Player by H.G. Wells

I received this beautiful first edition hardcover as a birthday gift (from two good friends whose distilled and parsimoniously public creativity can be viewed here) at least two birthdays ago and I finally got around to reading it. It's one of Wells' later works, written in 1937 and is both an excellent tale of horror in the Lovecraft mould and a disturbing, though none too subtle, foreshadowing of the horrors of the Second World War that were soon to be upon Europe.

It's short, barely a novella.  The book begins with the narrator introducing himself, in the chapter entitled Introduces Himself.  The character is the cliché of the useless British upper class remittance man. He is a bachelor and expert croquet player who lives with his wealthy aunt and is realistically aware of his own shortcomings.  It is actually quite a funny portrayal.  The story begins with our narrator sitting on the terraces at Les Noupets, "nibbling a brioche and consuming a harmless vermouth and seltzer."  He notices a man at the table next to him furiously flipping through book after book.  They being to converse and it is the story of the other man that is the main narrative of the book.  He is a middle-class doctor, who due to some stress decided to open a practice out in the country.  He moves to Cainsmarsh, an isolated rural area near a large marsh.  He discovers the locals to be suffering under some general anxiety and fear, feelings which soon start to invade his own consciousness.  Violent crimes occur in Cainsmarsh at a much higher rate than would be expected.  People are excessively cruel to their animals.  The doctor becomes more and more unhinged, but decides to try to investigate, as is the duty of a rational man.

I'm not going to give away spoilers.  There are themes here we find in some of Wells earlier work about man and his relationship to the beast of the wild.  The Croquet Player, though, is more explicitly horror in its stylings, actually quite creepy.  I always love Wells' english and reading this book reminds me that I need to read him more.  He does a great job of describing the region of Cainsmarsh and the phenomenon that is happening there.  I'll give a slight spoiler and say that the thematic undertone, that man's beastly side is returning and threatens to rip civilization apart, is done with too heavy a hand in the end, though perhaps given how close Britain was to the dawn of war, subtlety was not really an appropriate approach at that time.

You should read this book for yourself.  It's in the public domain and you can find it here.

I'll give you a piece of Wells' great prose to whet your appetite:

He was soon launched upon the wildest diatribe. He was transfigured by an anger that shook his feeble frame. He had fixed upon the local archæologists and naturalists as the chief objective for his tirade, but mixed up with that in the oddest and most illogical way was his detestation of the high-church practices that had been introduced by the new man at Marsh Havering. Just when this Evil was being released and rising like an exhalation from the earth, when the one supreme need of the time was religion straight and stern—'STRAIGHT AND STERN,' he repeated and shook his fingers in my face—this man must come with his vestments and images and music and mummery!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

14. The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

John Brunner has long been on my list of sci-fi authors to read.  I found a nice hardcover book club edition with this cover on it at one of my two (!) local english used bookstores.  I suspect that this was perhaps not the perfect choice of a Brunner novel to read.  It has some cool ideas and the beginning in particular was enjoyably disorienting, but it gets bogged down in philosophical conjectures without having built up a convincing enough world to make them interesting.  It takes place in the not too distant future in a semi-dystopian North American society where everyone has a unique ID and people's identities are based on the data about them.  Sounds topical, doesn't it?  It is and isn't because Brunner's prediction of the size and nature of external data was way off (a massive worm program that dominates the network is a million bits long for instance.  One can't fault him for this, as it was written in the early '70s and there are some concepts that he totally nailed (the worm for instance). 

The main character is a genius who escaped from an elite university and now switches from life to life by changing his identity number.  He lives in a state of fear, constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities that he fears are searching for him.  This part of the book is quite cool.  It is interspersed with future scenes of him being interrogated, which lets the reader know that he does indeed get caught.  The narrative gets going when he takes the role of a corporate analyst and meets the free-spirited daughter of one of his colleagues.  She guesses that he is not who he says he is and this is the catalyst that sets the two of them on the run.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are too many socio-philosophical digressions.  Much of their discussion is based on concepts put forth in the book which aren't well-grounded enough in the actual story, so you kind of don't really care.  You can read the political subtext in it as well, but it's Brunner extrapolating what a post-Nixonian world would look like 50 years from when he wrote it.  It all gets a bit obscure.  Then in the last third of the book, the scope suddenly becomes quite massive, with the hero basically taking down the entire system. It just didn't hold together well for me.

So an interesting book with some neat concepts, but not a great story.  Anyone have a better Brunner book to recommend?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

13: Case File: FBI by The Gordons

Not my copy (need a new scanner), but the same version, great cover.
Once again, I must pat myself on the back for my instinct in finding previously unknown books that I end up really liking.  I don't know how long this run will last and how painful it will be when it ends, but I am on a damned impressive streak, if I do say so myself!

I found Case File: FBI in a bunch of post-move trash in an alley last summer.  I was a bit skeptical, but the cover was just too cool (when I see an image like that it makes me question whether I truly made the right choices in my own life; I think I would have thrived kicking down doors in a suit).  The book itself turns out to be as cool, a tough, taut, well-written procedural that captures the day-to-day of the life of a Chicago FBI office as well as delivering a gripping, interlocking crime narrative.

Check out this prose:

To Rip it was like a thousand other nights.  Yet always the feeling of the first time possessed him, not of foreboding, nor apprehension, but the strange sensation of wondering what was behind the door they soon would walk through.  It was never the same twice, and yet it was always the same.  People talked, words came spilling out, and by those words, rather than by the tommy guns or the .38s, killers were captured. Words chased men, harried them, cornered them, broke their spirits, sent them to the chair.

That is good stuff!

There are three storylines going on here and it takes a while to get all the people organized in your head.  They eventually come together to form a mostly coherent whole, but they begin as separate cases. The book starts with two officers going to investiage an anonymous tip and one of them getting shot and killed.  The other officer, the protagonist John Riply (or Rip) then has to go through his dead partner's active files to figure out which case the tip was connected to. The first case, and the emotional through-line of the book, is about a young widow who starts receiving extortion letters.  They want the $10,000 she inherited from her husband's death in exchange for her daughter's safety.  Nasty stuff and convincingly portrayed.  The authors spend a lot of time on the woman's personal life and it is an interesting portrayal of the pressures on a single woman in that period.  The second case is a fugitive on the run and the third is a car theft ring.

There is some tough stuff in this book and I am reminded once again that things from back in the day could be pretty darned hard, even if we think of it as a more innocent time.  It also glosses over the political element of the FBI, with only a passing mention at the beginning of communist infiltrators.  This book was written at the beginning of the Red scare and what the FBI were doing in real life was far from the heroic, selfless public duty that is so appealingly portrayed here.

A bit of internet research tells me that The Gordons were a husband and wife writing team, Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who wrote novels and screenplays.  Case File: FBI became a movie called Down Three Dark Streets which I shall have to look out for.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

12. Accident by Design by E. C. R. Lorac

Holy crap, I read a book!

Found this one at a used record store near my house that I have walked by a thousand times but never gone into.  It's the kind of place that I haunted in my high school and college years but have long since grown bored with. However, something drew me in on that day and it turned out that they had a big, messy pile of old pulp books in the back corner.  They were in terrible condition and overpriced ($5 each), but I spent some time going through them (and organizing them) and picked out this one.  Despite having two other books half-read (since March!), I jumped into it and found it engaging enough that I made it to the end.

In fact, Accident by Design was honestly a really well done classic British mystery.  I was quite surprised, expecting something subpar and generic.  It was well-written, with interesting characters and some great descriptions of the British countryside and the work done on a tenant farm.  The story is about a family estate in the early '50s.  The patriarch lies in bed near death, but still quite aware.  His eldest son is a feckless alchoholic with a middle-class (bad), Australian (worse) wife who hates pretty much everyone his father employed and has threatened to make a clean sweep when he takes over.  When they both die in a car accident, too many people benefit and this alerts the local constabulary (who are very well depicted in the best British tradition of the no-nonsense, practical, reasonable police force).  When their surviving son dies a few days later, by seemingly eating some poisonous berries, the game is truly afoot.  It's a solid, enjoyable read that spoke particularly to me because of the British countryside angle.  There are some great walks and agricultural discussions.  The police as well are just awesome in the way their supervisor listens to their hunches and lets them follow their instincts, within reason.  Very satisfying.

I learned later that E. C. R. Lorac is the pseudonym for Edith Caroline Rivett whose works are very well-respected (she is considered a prime representative of the golden age of British mysteries) and whose books are even collectible!  (Though I doubt this paperback is worth anything, given its state.)  I will definitely be keeping an eye open for her in the future.  And let's hope this kickstarts my reading for 2013, because I gots some catching up to do!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

11. The 10th Victim by Robert Sheckley

I did a bit of research and learned that this book is an adaptation by Robert Sheckley of the Italian movie that was in turn an adaptation of Sheckley's short story from Galaxy magazine called The Seventh Victim.  I'm curious to find the original and read it just to see how much it changed and if the movie (which was highly stylized, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress) influenced him at all.

It's a great setting: the near future where war has been eliminated in favour of an ongoing, global game of voluntary human hunt.  The rules are simple.  You offer yourself up and then you have a total of 10 kills to succeed, 5 as the Hunter and 5 as the Victim. It's totally legal as long as you don't injure any non-participants.  It is all televised and a major part of the culture.  If you do make it to 10 kills, you become a high-status person in your community.  The book begins with a few example kills and then focuses on two people, both heading to their tenth kill.  Catherine Meredith is a New York executive with a big media organization behind her.  Marcello Polletti is a feckless middle-aged Italian man who doesn't seem to care about the hunt at all.

When I was an adolescent, I got into Killer big-time.  It was a game where you played assassins trying to take out your friends with dart guns, squirt guns, bombs that were notes etc.  It was a brief phenomenon in the '80s, I guess on college campuses.  We lived in a small town and were only like 12 or 13 but we had some pretty good games, including one that took place in the woods behind my house (with my uptight neighbour freaking out about us making noise and screaming into the woods that there was a cougar sighting earlier that day).  This book was a huge influence on the original game.  This is why it has been on my list for so long.

However, the tone of the book is actually quite light, almost sardonic, which was far from the way I as an intense, nerdy 12-year old boy thought about how assassination should go down.  I'm quite glad I didn't read it back then, as I wouldn't have gotten it and probably been kind of annoyed and disappointed.  Today, I find it a fun read, doing some nice satire of the media and our culture of violence.  The Marcello character is quite funny.  It's just all a bit light and kind of goes nowhere in the end.  But I guess that is not too surprising given that it really was just a short story.  There are two sequels.  I am at least curious to know how Sheckley followed this story up.

Monday, March 11, 2013

10. Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Damn skippy I own this.
I bought this paperback at the inestimable Kayo Books in San Francisco.  I have mixed feelings about Donald Hamilton and picked this one up because of a combination of the date, the price and the cool cover.  It turns out (and I thank the inestimable Nick Jones of Existential Ennui for making me aware of this) that this was the first Matt Helm book.  So that was quite exciting. Happily, the book itself is great and lives up to its reputation as a hard-boiled spy classic.

It's an awesome title and the book explores the theme well.  The protagonist is successful fiction writer (Westerns) Matt Helm, living a very normal, pleasant life in Santa Fe with his lovely family.  He is almost a decade out of his war career, where he was part of a ruthless top secret Allied spy/commando force.  To everyone around him now, he had a fairly boring war, though he did get badly injured.  The book opens in medias res (and really well done in media res as well) at a party where he sees a beautiful young woman who was his colleague and lover back in WWII.  Her presence quickly brings back memories and then more than memories as he gets tangled up in whatever the hell she is up to here.  It's a great ride and the ending is particularly intense and tough and satisfying.  I'm kind of glad this isn't the first Matt Helm book I've read and that I was aware that the whole series is not able to maintain the hardness of this one.  Otherwise I might have been in for a great letdown. Coming to Death of a Citizen at this phase in my reading was most rewarding.  Get your hands on this, citizen.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

9. Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller

He looks like the principal from Ferris Bueller's day off.
I knew the Scientology was a cult, but I had never really been clear on how it got from L. Ron Hubbard being a science fiction writer to the place it is today.  I can not even remember how I stumbled onto Bare-Faced Messiah. It was simply a link that I followed on my ipad and because it held my interest, I ended up reading the entire thing online.  I guess that it can be considered my first e-book read, though it was actually a straight-up HTML site with white text on black.  The U.S.'s retarded copyright laws allowed the psychos at the Church of Scientology to block its publication there, but thanks to the internet, it is available online.  You can find it here:

In case you have any doubt about its validity as a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, know that the book was published to favourable reviews in the rest of the world and that it is generally considered to be the definitive work on the man.  Miller is a respected journalist who did other biographies.  He went through incredible harassment and persecution during and after the work on this book. When you read the story of what the church did to try and defame him and prevent the book from coming out, you really have to wonder how they are allowed to exist at all. They are a total cult operating outside the law of the countries they are in.  Germany was right to shut them down.  The U.S. policy towards Scientology is just insane.  Not only are they not prosecuting them for their crimes, but they actually grant them religious tax status, so they pay no taxes.  The IRS was basically blackmailed into this position to avoid further legal and extra-legal harassment from Scientology.  It's astounding.

But I'll let others fight the fight against these losers.  Let's get to the book at hand, which really is a fascinating study of an individual and a look into a time and place when a cult like this could be able to gain such a  powerful foothold.  The first half of the book is a thoroughly documented tracing of L. Ron Hubbard's early years, constantly comparing the reality to the fiction he and the church created around him. He was basically an imaginative, unfocused young man from the Pacific Northwest who got to do a bit of travelling because of his dad's job with the army.  He was also an extraordinary egomaniac who began embellishing his own life story at a very early age.  So a berth on a merchant marine to Guam with his mother to go visit his dad turns into a rollicking adventure where he performs all these outsized deeds.  His interest in gliding and participation in some gliding clubs becomes him being a record-breaking pilot and general daredevil.  His short-lived role as a pilot of a submarine in WWII where he did a few practice runs and was demoted for taking action against something only he saw on the radar becomes a heroic destruction of the only known instance of Japanese u-boats in US water and him being moved to a top-secret intelligence department.

To his credit, he was able to embellish his life story because he himself was a wildly imaginative and highly prolific writer (though nowhere near as prolific as he and the church claim today).  He was a successful contributor to the science fiction magazines of the golden age and a part of that general scene on and off in New York.

The middle part of the book, about him as a young adult, you can see that what was a penchance for exaggeration starts to take a more serious turn.  He demonstrates all the symptoms of a manic-depressive personality, though fortunately for him, he seems to have spent more of his time in a manic state.  His pulpish yarns do not make him enough money and also don't seem to bring him the kind of respect he demands.  So he starts working on longer, more serious works.  This is where the craziness starts.  Fortunately for Hubbard, his kind of craziness, plus his manic drive to succeed combined to make a system of living that seemed to resonate with people at this time.  I'm really cutting things short, but basically he started these teaching centers, first with Dianetics and then with the more "refined" Scientology.  It exploded and he ended up making tons of money and gathering tons of followers.  As Scientology grew, so did his paranoia and megalomania.  By the end, Hubbard was floating around the ocean on a restored cruise ship, surrounded by an elite team of prepubescent blonde girls who communicated his every command in his exact tone of voice and temper while carrying out complex plots of revenge on defectors.  This is some Kim Jong-Il level shit here.  Scientology has been in the media today a lot.  Anything you might think sounds a little crazy to be true is actually true and it started with L. Ron. The Sea Org, which originated with his cruise ship crew and those psychotic little girls is still the source of the inner elite and extreme weirdness (though now it is land-based) and it is where the current leader, David Miscavige, came from.  These people are completely fucking bonkers and everyone who follows them is bonkers themselves or else a victim who was sucked in against their will.  It's a fucking scary cult with billions of dollars.

And this is where the book disappoints. It's a great factual read of Hubbard's life and how Scientology came to be.  But it does not attempt to understand how it possibly could have succeeded so well.We all know that most people are stupid and gullible and want to be led, but it's rare that some new form of organized religion is able to spring into being in the modern era from the mind of one charismatic, manic loony and turn into a worldwide phenomenon so powerful that it can blackmail the IRS and that its leader can make his wife simply disappear without any authorities asking any questions.  I have my own ideas why it worked so well, but I would like to have had more analysis and data to really think it through.  There is none of that in Bare-Faced Messiah.

Nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating sometimes infuriating read about one of the twentieth century's great cult leaders.  I recommend it.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

8. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

Another near-masterpiece of science fiction and political speculation, here LeGuin examines two opposing ideals that we know all too well here on earth: the egalitarian collective society versus the hierarchical individualistic society.  I know, it sounds kind of boring, but in LeGuin's expert hands we get a compelling, moving story about the only man who had the opportunity to live in both worlds.  The setting is the planet Urras, similar geographically to earth and its habitable but resource-limited moon, Anarres.  Centuries past, a group of rebels broke off from the society of Urras and instead of causing a civil war, were allowed to go to Urras, where they created a functioning anarchic society.  Both societies mutually decide to break off all contact, except for one rocket ship that goes back and forth with basic trade goods and minimal communications.

Shevek, a physicist on Anarres, has succeeded in getting his theories put on that rocket ship and they are so groundbreaking that they garner him an invitation to Urras.  The beginning of the book is him getting on that rocket and leaving everything he knows behind.  The narrative then breaks off into two threads.  One traces his experiences on this vastly different world (the material wealth alone is mind-blowing, but Urras also has mammals and rich geographical diversity) as he begins to conflict with its political realities; the other thread goes back in time to his own upbringing and the conflicts he faces on hishome planet against its own hidden political rigidity.

Both stories are equally engaging, though it is the present one on Urras (the wealthy planet) that really grabs the reader's attention at first. It reminds somewhat of The Man Who Fell to Earth, though Shevek is not here to plead for anything other than increased communication between the two worlds.  He enters this wealthy place a hero, but soon learns that he is in the proverbial gilded cage.  The government of the host nation (and the wealthiest one on the planet) wants his knowledge as it may be the key to instant inter-galactic communication, thus giving them a huge advantage with the other worlds they have just started to meet.  Shevek tries his best to navigate the choppy waters of this highly social world and badly fails in the book's turning point.

Here the origin story starts to get more interesting.  We are feeling critical of Urras, but we soon see that Anarres has problems of its own.  Shevek's mentor, who controls access to the rocket ship, is jealous and close-minded.  When it becomes known that Shevek may be actually going to Urras, political adversaries mount an aggressive attack against him and his clique.

The ending of the book is not explosive, though it threatens to be.  Rather, LeGuin zooms out and we suddenly see these two worlds from a new perspective and it is quite enlightening, both for the way we think about what we read and for the way we think about our own world.

It's quite easy to see how these two worlds can be seen as communist Russia and the capitalist west.  The parrallel doesn't quite work, because LeGuin is examining these political ideals more abstractly.  Divorced from the realities of our earth, she can push both philosophies to different outcomes - but especially the collectivist one, which works much better here.  It is cool to see how a collectivist, anarchist society could actually work, what the pros and cons would be, especially given significant material constraints.  While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that I would be pretty unhappy to not have beautiful oceans and mountains and to only eat sweet food once or twice a year.  But as you read on, she does a pretty convincing job of making the positive human elements of this society, the true freedom to pursue what you want while being deeply connected to the greater community, very appealling. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

7. Deadly Edge by Richard Stark

Now we're talking.  The University of Chicago Press edition of Deadly Edge has a great introduction to Deadly Edge, by Charles Ardai, where he points out how the Parker series softens slightly with the four books ending in "Score" and then kicks into a darker, more intense gear with Deadly Edge and the three that follow it (Slayground, Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon).  He also points out that for many Parker fans one of those 4 is their favourite.  That was definitely the case with me, with Slayground being my favourite (and the first one I read).  With this third go-around, though, I am holding out on naming a favourite until I am finished. Currently, The Jugger is in first place.

But boy does Deadly Edge make a run for the title!  First of all, it starts out with my favourite heist, the robbery of the ticket offices of a stadium during a rock concert.  The idea is just cool in and of itself, but it is also so well realized. Only Westlake could so effectively put together the constant throbbing of the 60's psychedelic rock, the decaying industrial architecture and the tense execution of this heist.  He portrays the side characters so well (the pessimistic heister and the angry security guard) which adds to the tension and the richness of the situation.  Finally, the entire thing is founded on the value of skilled physical labour, with the opening being entirely focused on the logistical details of cutting into and through a stadium roof.  Just so good.  This is Westlake the master craftsman writing about other master craftsmen, both parties at the very top of their games.

And this is only the beginning. Westlake is not satisfied with this perfectly constructed music box.  He needs to jam his pen right into the middle of the mechanism.  In doing so, he also demonstrates that he is more than just a master crafstmen.  He is also a profoundly observant social critic and her he turns his eye to the idealism of the 60s and its sordid demise.  Deadly Edge is Donald Westlake's Altamont.  It takes the form of the two "hippie" characters, one a sexless psychopath wearing fringed leather and talking about "taking it easy", the other an lsd-blasted man-child as prone to glee as to savagery.  They have discovered Parker's heist and are tracking down the participants one by one, torturing each and taking their money.  Their insanity and ruthlessness trumps the skills of the more experienced criminals (there is an interesting generation gap here as well).  Until they get to Parker of course.

There is a lot of other good stuff to mention as well in Deadly Edge  We get to see Claire on her own again and this time she is not quite as helpless.  She shows her inner toughness and smarts in parrying with the intruders long enough for Parker to get back. There is also a horror element here, reminiscent of the grindhouse movies of the same period (Last House on the Left in particular comes to mind).  Finally, despite the utter depravity of the hippie thugs and the reader's desire for Parker to completely fuck them up, Westlake still portrays their relationship with some humanity.  Their ending does not deliver easy satisfaction for the reader.  Westlake was too realistic for that.

Another Parker tour de force.  I'm into the home stretch here.  Next up, the first Parker I ever read and possibly my favourite:  Slayground.  Going to be hard to wait.

Administrative Interlude: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Comments

I just discovered this morning a slew of fantastic comments that I had never approved!  For some reason, Google decided that blogger did not actually want to alert me when I had a new comment (a policy change on which I was not consulted), so they have been piling up there since July of 2012.  My apologies to everyone if you felt snubbed!  Man, there are some good comments there as well.  I will respond to each one on the post in question and pray that you will somehow get alerted.  In any case, my thanks and appreciation to all of you who have been reading and especially to those who have given me some feedback.  You know how it works in this blogger game.

Also, I know I've been a bit lax so far in 2013, but my reading is ongoing.  I actually have a bit of a back-up of posts to write but will start to hack away at them.  Appropriately, one of the comments was "More blogging, less reading!".  From my mother, natch!

Keep turning those pages, people!

Oh and since I have you, let me throw out a recommendation for End of Watch, a 2012 southside LA cop movie.  It's not a masterpiece and the plot when it finally happens kind of gets in the way, but the procedural moments of which there are plenty are really fantastic, a nice mix of crazy situations and rich engaging characters, especially the two cops.  It's kind of like Cops that old television show scripted by Pelecanos on a cocaine binge.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

6. All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman

All My Sins Remembered shares similar themes to the only other Joe Haldeman book I've read (and his most well known), The Forever War:  war and time and how they effect the individual.  In this book, the protagonist is a Prime Operator, an elite agent for a universal peacekeeping force.  He is sent from civilization to civilization disguised as a local with plastiflesh and a personality overlay (which only allows his true personality to come through in moments of crisis).  The book is made up of several separate episodes, interspersed with debriefings, without much of a thread beyond the main character to tie it all together.  Two of the chapters were actually stand-alone short stories in Galaxy magazine. I don't know if he always intended them to be part of a larger narrative or if he went back and stitched them together to get a book.  It holds together fairly well, but more because the concept is cool and the episodes are each quite interesting on their own.  The protagonist's fate feels a bit forced precisely because his internal arc only really moves forward in the debriefing sessions and not in the episodes.  The things that affect him happen in missions that he only refers to and not ones you read about.  The parallel to the Vietnam war and its effect on US soldiers is strong here and I suspect that's what Haldeman was going for.  He doesn't quite get there, but it is still an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

5. The Magician's Wife by James M. Cain

I'm starting to question James M. Cain's reputation.  This is the second book of his that I have read and while I enjoyed the reading, I found it to be seriously flawed.  I did read some other reviews that considered this part of his lesser, later work so I will withhold such a general judgement for now.  But I am wary.  The reason is that the same flaw that bothered me about Masquerade is the one that makes The Magician's Wife so preposterous: a rigidity and blindness in his approach to sexuality that seems extremely dated.  Cain seems hampered by a morality that he himself can't seem to see.  So instead of talking around sex like many of his contemporaries did, he hides from it all the while that it is the main mechanism that is driving his storyline forward.  It makes for a disconnect for the reader.  You are constantly questioning why the main character is behaving the way he is.

The plot here is quite compelling.  Clay Lockwood is a super succesful meat salesman.  Now I love any book that takes the time to explain the details of a real job and the mechanisms behind this and Cain really does this here.  We learn about Clay's role in the early days of food industrialization, selling pre-packaged meat products to high-end restaurants.  It's fascinating to read about how he has to explain to experienced chefs that they only need to throw the foil packet in boiling water for one minute before the meat is ready.  This is considered the new haute cuisine!  So I was quite psyched when the book started.  In touring one of his major clients, he meets a super-hot hostess, Sally Alexis, who demonstrates impressive efficiency in the way she runs the restaurant.  Circumstances bring them together again and they are clearly attracted to each other.  Unfortunately, she is married.  To a magician!  Not only that, but the magician comes from a wealthy family and they have a young son together.  Clay and Sally fall in love.  She is unhappy with the magician.  He is a jerk.  But she refuses to leave him because in doing so she will cut off her son's chance at inheriting his father's money (currently also blocked by her crabby mother-in-law).  As the book progresses, she reveals herself to be more and more of a psycho, possibly murdering the mother-in-law and then pushing Clay more and more to help her murder her husband.

It's a classic set-up.  The problem is that none of it really rings true.  Clay seems like a rational, focused dude and Sally shows herself to be completely psycho early on. She spazzes out and breaks all kinds of fancy art in his sweet penthouse apartment.  Why would he bother with her?  There is nothing in his character that explains why he would stick with this woman. He is a super eligible bachelor with a fine future.  Furthermore, even if her son would lose his inheritance, Clay is very well off and on his way to becoming even more succesful (he gets promoted in the course of the book and is being groomed to run the whole company).  He could easily support Sally and her son with a wealthy lifestyle.  The only thing that holds it all together is that they had sexual intercourse and that now he is somehow destined to be stuck with her.  Except that Cain never tells us this and never dives into it in any interesting way.  It's just assumed that it's the 50s, if you bone some chick you are going to go all crazy and make a bunch of stupid decisions that will ruin your life because you have to whatever she wants.  It's so weird.  So while I'm reading it, I'm quite enjoying all the situations and the characters but I'm not believing any of it and Clay just comes off like the giantest chump ever (and there are a lot of them).

So ultimately a failure, but not a painful one for the reader.  Also, the paperback edition I found is quite lovely.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

4. The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark

The Black Ice Score is my least favourite of the Parker novels (though this may change with my second reading of the second run).  I believe I am not alone in this.  It's actually a pretty cool story, but the tone is just off.  I feel like Westlake was, for once, a bit mixed in his head about which identity was writing this one. It has hints of Dortmunder in it (the New York location, the cast of different gangs, the slight goofiness).  More strongly, it feels like it came about when Westlake was really getting into Africa as a theme (which would later come out more fully realized in Kahawa and to some extent Humans).  He seems more interested in the nation of Dhaba than in Parker.  We see Parker through their eyes, rather than his own.

But what really knocks this one down a peg for me is all the grinning.  One character in particular, who actually is somewhat of a hardcase (though in a civilized, educated exterior) is constantly grinning.  It just doesn't fit a Parker book in general and in some moments seems utterly out of place.  I hate to say it, but it also has a disturbing stereotypical edge to it, the grinning African with his big white teeth.  Finally the white South Africans are the lameos here and should really get their shit handed to them Parker style.  They get off way too easy for pulling a gun on Parker in his hotel room, kidnapping his woman and generally acting smugly superior.  I note that this is the second book in a row where Parker seems a bit restrained.  Was Westlake working through some issues of his own?  These were written in 1969 and 1970, as the tide started to turn on the hippie movement and America began to truly question itself.  Perhaps Westlake too was demonstrating some thematic doubt with the purity that is Parker.  Or perhaps he is just storing the ass-kicking up in order that he will have plenty to unleash in the wave that comes in the following books.

Not to say that there isn't a lot good in The Black Ice Score.  The character of Hoskins as the international criminal sleazeball is well-realized and his role in the job going sour is pretty classic. The job itself is quite cool, with an intricate setting and plan.  And we get to see a bit more about Claire, who, while remaining a bit of a cypher also demonstrates an inner strength that helps the reader start to understand why Parker might stick around.  The characters' names are, as usual with Westlake, absolutely superlative, somehow both very realistic and yet not mundane.

Friday, February 01, 2013

3. The Stingaree by Max Brand

This was part of my alley way find.  I don't know much about Max Brand, but I think he was a popular western writer, as the cover of this book has its own MB logo on it.  What was neat about The Stingaree is that it is a Northern Western, taking place somewhere in a small northern town in Canada.  The protagonist is a young orphan boy who is both a local terror and troublemaker, but also an adoptee, loved by the entire town.  He lives a rough and tumble life, learning all the skills of the outdoors from local outdoorsmen and Indians while also leading a gang of youths that control one side of the town and battle the gang from the other side.  One day, while in the forest trying to train a half-wild wolf-dog, he stumbles upon an out-of-towner, an impressive man with a remarkable gun accuracy, who appears to have walked from the south.

The boy becomes his ambassador to the town and the reader soons learns that this man has a reputation and a mission.  He is the infamous but honourable criminal, the Stingaree, who has come north to avenge the murder of his partner by one of the more respectable citizens of the town.  The boy is put in a difficult ethical position and forced to make difficult decisions.  He must choose between his own ideals and the people he respects in the town, while also trying to figure out what those things are.  The theme of adulthood and identity are forefront in the book.  There is lots of narrative, there is also a lot of introspection.  It's an interesting stew with a mix of flavours.

The last third of the book veers into a different rhtyhm, as the Stingaree, the boy and his Indian ally make a journey even farther to the north, pursued by the RCMP.  This is a long slow survival chase and puts to the test the friendship between the boy and the Stingaree.

An enjoyable read.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2. The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark

[This review is intended for people who have already read the book.  It's not that there are a lot of explicit spoilers, but I come to some (probably facile) conclusions that are only possibly interesting if you have read the book.  As always, if you haven't read The Sour Lemon Score yet, I can only assume that it is because you are still working your way up to it.  So get cracking!]

I always used to think of The Sour Lemon Score as one of the more archetypical Parker books.  It has the classic structure of heist gone wrong and Parker dealing with the aftermath.  It has no links to any of the cross-book storylines.  Finally, it has The something something Score title.  On this, my third go-through of the series, I am more of the mind that there are no archetypical Parker books.  Each one has its own flavour and style that make it unique.  Upon this re-read, I have learned that while the beginning follows close to what might be considered the Parker formula, it quickly becomes a very different book.  The majority of the storyline is devoted to a double manhunt with a lot of investigation:  Parker trying to find the dude who betrayed the heist while that dude hunts Parker down to eliminate the last betrayee.

Things get complicated, of course and Parker interacts with a wide range of individuals that keep the book interesting.  For me, I find The Sour Lemon Score a bit dissatisfying. It's not that it isn't a good book.  It has the usual rich and fun writing ("Uhl was still as docile as a lobotomized monk"), a couple of neat dips into the straight end of the pool (it's always interesting when Parker enters into the non-criminal world) and a surprisingly deep look into the character of Parker himself and his ethical limits.  It's just that it starts off with such a bang with the heist and then the awesome action of the betrayal (Parker jumping out of the barn window one bullet ahead of his life is just so excellent) that I get all revved up.  I'm so fucking angry with George Uhl and I want Parker to find him and punish him.  The rest of the book holds that tension but adds complexity to it so that it becomes harder and harder to release it.  By the end, when Parker makes the moral choice that he does, you realize that you aren't going to get that simple satisfaction and it's a bit of a letdown.

Thinking about it, I realize that the book could be read as Parker's failure.  He ends up with no cash in a lot of them, but somehow it feels like he tries really hard and is constantly questioning himself as he is doing so.  He ends up with nothing and in a position where he has to make what is perhaps the less efficient moral decision.  It's kind of depressing.  Yet it still adheres to Parker's realism and cold objectivity regarding life and himself.  He knows it as much as the reader does.

Monday, January 14, 2013

1. Casca: The Legionnaire #11 by Barry Sadler

I literally found this book in an alley, along with several other minor little treasures.  The contents of what appeared to be someone's apartment  were strewn about an alley and my eye flashed on a beat-up paperback sticking out of a plastic bag.  I couldn't resist and ended up finding a nice little stash of books from the 60s through the early 80s.  Don't know if somebody had moved out or passed away, but I couldn't let these books go to the dump.

Casca is a fairly well-known and appreciated series among fans of the manly military series books.  It's the story of a legionnaire responsible for putting Jesus on the cross who is then cursed to spend the rest of time until the Rapture being a soldier.  He is effectively immortal and follows history going from war to war.  #11 starts out with him as a Nazi soldier, fleeing the Russian advance at the end of WWII.  He makes his way to the French Foreign Legion and is sent over to Indochina to help stave off the Viet Cong resistance to French colonial rule.

I'm not a big fan of war fiction.  There is often a slightly disturbing pornographic element in it that makes me think of certain kids in high school that I didn't really want to hang around with.  I also find it kind of boring.  Of all the wars, I'd say it is Vietnam that I find the most boring and disturbing when portrayed fictionally.  So I had a bit of a slog at certain points getting through this book.  It wasn't extremely pornie when it came to the guns and violence (less so than the Bruno Rossi books for instance), but at the same time there isn't really a whole lot to care about character-wise.  The coolest part for me was when Casca does actually get killed.  It is about halfway through the book and up until that point there was no explanation of his supernatural status, just a few oblique references to his scarred body and intense, deathly stare.  The description of his resurrection after being shot down in a swamp in Vietnam was compelling and intense.  I got into that part. 

I think if you like this sort of thing, the Casca books deserve their reputation and you should check them out.  It's not my cup of tea, so I am glad I read this one and know how the series works, but that will be it for me.