Monday, December 29, 2014

28. Brink's, The Money Movers by R.A. Seng and J.V. Gilmour

(written dec 6, 2015, can't remember when I actually read it!)

I found this in a free box a long time ago.  It's a corporate published history of Brink's, well-researched, parochial and totally biased.  As a fan of the heist genre, I thought this would have some good information and be entertaining as well.  I wasn't disappointed.  The first half in particular, talking about the early days of Brink's moving money in the early West via horse carriage (real cowboy stuff) and it's growth into the twentieth century was good. The second half was a bit duller, but I still enjoy some of the corporate history. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

27. The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert

[Written Dec 1, 2015 catching up.]

Also found at my parent's, had to offset the Gilbert murder mystery with a Gilbert thriller.  The reveal of the antagonist in this one was much weirder and colourful than I had remembered.  Made it a bit uneven, but a really cool portrayal of rural Italy and the art/archaeology world. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

26. The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert

[written Dec 1, 2015]
This is the spark that fuels my Ambler/Gilbert fire that was the first half of 2015.  I am always in the mood for a good British murder mystery when I am staying at my parent's for the holidays and found this classic in the shelf.  Reading it at this age, I get all the cultural subtleties and manners, so the book seemed less subtle than when I was a younger man.  Still, thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

25. Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler

[written Dec 1, 2015 catching up.]
Uncommon Danger is in the 4-volume Eric Ambler omnibus, but the copy I read I found in my parent's guest bedroom bookshelf, a really old paperback with a breaking spine and flaking corners.  I read it anyways.  It was great, though I preferred the setup (with the down and out journalist on his last dime crossing a frontier with unknown contraband) then the conclusion.  Still, great stuff.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

24. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

[written Dec 1, 2015 catching up ]

I can not remember the context of when I was reading this, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  My aunt pointed out that it was really a satire, subtly ridiculing most of the characters.  Good.

Friday, December 05, 2014

23. The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth

Okay, now back to full manliness!  I've never read this classic and only seen snippets of the movie (which I shall also rectify now that I have read the book).  As a young man, I read a book of short stories, No Comebacks, by Forsyth that I absolutely loved, then tried to read The Day of the Jackal and wasn't able to finish it.  I think that sort of put me off Forsyth for a while.  I found The Dogs of War at the local thrifts shop for two bucks in a thick, generick 90s paperback that I didn't have to worry about treating roughly and jumped right in.

Really, this should be called The Dogs of Preparing for War.  The premise is a massive British mineral company discovers a mountain of platinum in a fictional West African backwater country and their CEO hires a mercenary team to take the entire government out while also performing some financial shenanigans to ensure a massive killing on the market.  The mercenary he hires, Shannon, is the protagonist and he is tasked with first scouting the mission, coming up with a plan, hiring the team and supplying it.  This process is really the majority of the book, a 260-page chapter called The Hundred Days where Shannon and his men travel all over Europe buying weapons and equipment, arranging transport, negotiating with customs brokers, gathering sketchy documentation, dealing with rival mercs and all the rest of the work that goes on in preparation of a military coup.  The only action is the aforementioned rival merc and that is a brief shot in the arm in what is otherwise all procedural.  For me, it wasn't boring at all.  I couldn't put it down.  I love this stuff anyhow, but it being pre-internet made it even more fascinating to read about the way arms get bought and sold and how to avoid surveillance (lot of letters to people staying at hotels under false names) and other extra-legal activities in 1970s Europe.

The portrayal of Africa and the Africans is at best patronizingly colonial and at worst straight-up racist. This book was written right after the wave of African independence from Colonialism and the attitude is one of the post-colonial country's superiority, with a contemptuous portrayal of the African governments as being hopelessly corrupt and inefficient.  This portrayal is not untrue, but when the root causes are unexamined (i.e. colonialism itself), it comes off as pretty ignorant at times.  The context is overall very cynical and morally speaking the whites in power, especially the businessmen are portrayed as being utterly unethical.  It's in the competence where the racism is the worst. It really gets bad when Forsyth talks about the Africans as soldiers, suggesting that they have an innate tendency to shoot with their eyes closed. I'm sure Forsyth is reflecting the attitudes of old Africa hands of the time, but still. It's not just racist, it's also historically inaccurate and weakens the rich, realistic detail he builds up so well otherwise.

It's ironic, because at the end of the book, it's clear that despite his militarism and accepted colonial attitude, Forsyth seems relatively liberal at the end of the book.  I won't give anything away, but "good" Africans come out of the woodwork plot-wise at the end and it's clear that Forsyth is in favour of them ruling their own lands.

Despite my misgivings on the portrayal of the Africans, this is a great read and deserves its reputation as a classic.

Monday, December 01, 2014

22. Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Which book blogger has read and posted about women authors in four of his last six reads? This guy!  Okay, that was bad, but I do give myself a small pat on the back for trying to expand my horizon out of my cozy nerdy boys' club of masculine genre fiction and succeeding somewhat (by reading cozy nerdy feminine genre fiction).  Tales of Earthsea is 5 longish stories that fill out either the history or some parts of the world set out in the original trilogy.  I didn't make an effort to place these stories into the overall context of that trilogy, since I had forgotten all those details, but as I read them, bits and pieces came back to me.  The stories here are nice because most of them are very local, going into characters and locations with the richness that LeGuin is good at and avoiding the more fable-like remote telling that made the third book in the trilogy, The Farthest Shore, unsatisfying for me.  There is also a history at the end, which I think the attuned reader would find invaluable.

An enjoyable read, but it was the forward that I found the most stimulating.  As is my practice, I went back and read it after I had finished the book and it is there that I was reminded of LeGuin's genius, not just as a fictional writer, but also as a very active and critical social thinker.  This little essay just rips apart the commodification of science fiction and fantasy.  She goes after the world of completists, collectors and the producers who churn stuff out because it satisfies a certain consumer need.  Her attacks are broad and structural, but I almost suspect that George Martin might have been one of the producers she had in mind here.

So people turn to fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity; an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable and interchangeable.

Friday, November 14, 2014

21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This was recommended to me by ex-50 booker (though still fairly prolific reader) Buzby and since I am always on the lookout for Canadian "genre" authors, I went for it.  Also, it gave me an excuse to support a local sci-fi/fantasy bookstore in Toronto and it fits into my new trade paperback reading strategy.  Finally, it's a book that makes me feel contemporary and hip when I read it in public locations (in the train station, I carried under my arm in such a way that you could see the author's photo).  So many compelling reasons to read Station Eleven!

The book itself is definitely a page-turner.  It's an interesting hybrid of "genre" and "literary".  Mandel is walking the same path as Cormac Macarthy wrapping what are basically good stories of action and adventure in a package that will make it appealing to the medium-brow mainstream.  Station Eleven is a post-plague world without us novel that references pulpy graphic novels as a serious art form but is also an exploration of character and modern-day relationships.  One of the main storylines is of a band of travelling musicians in the rebuilding wasteland in conflict with a religious cult that has ninja forest skills, but it is told in non-linear fashion, interwoven with pre-plague narratives that slowly give us the backstory of various characters and weave the entire thing into an exploration of one particular character who dies before the plague even starts.

This hybrid form forced me to ask myself what I really like.  I feel like this is an honest effort and the author's understanding of comics, sci-fi and the dystopian sub-genre appear to be deep and personal, not just slumming it as we have seen with some mainstream literary authors (only to get skewered on the pen of Ursula K. Le Guin).  But in the end, I wasn't clear on what the point of this novel was.  It seems to be ultimately one of those meditations on character, where the narrative takes a back seat to the attempt at sharing some kind of "truth" with the reader.  That's a bit ungenerous on my part, as I think here it is more of a feeling about the worth of a life and how we impact each other in our interconnected world than a truth.  It was a pleasant book overall and left me with a nice feeling, but it also didn't live up to the promise of its premise.  When it was over, I felt that it was just over.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

20. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I see now that several of her romantic
thrillers are published in this style. 
Collection addiction stimulated!
I'm very angry at myself, because I found this really nice copy in the dollar book bin in front of the same used bookstore where I bought The Deal.  This time, the owner was sitting on a stool just inside the doorway, writing prices on the inside cover of books from a new shipment.  The story is overcrowded at the best of times, but on this day there were so many stacks of books that I could not walk through without taking my backpack off.  Classic used bookstore owner.  But I digress.  I am angry at myself because after keeping the book safely on my shelf I stupidly put it into my jacket pocket when going out to a friend's house in case I got stuck with time to kill and no reading material.  And of course, the spine got bent.  I still have so much to learn about myself.

Anyhow, Wildfire at Midnight is a well-written thriller with a plucky and beautiful British heroine, which is undermined by a painfully sexist romantic demoument.  It was Stewart's second novel, written in 1956, so I can excuse the gender politics somewhat, but it was just so disappointing.  The heroine is a divorced model who decides to take a vacation in Skye, rugged Northern country that draws anglers and climbers.  When she gets to the isolated and charming country inn, after meeting an attractive local outdoors enthusiast on the boat ride over, she immediately discovers that her ex-husband is staying there.  She also learns that there has been a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a local girl on a nearby mountain.  What follows is a thriller as more murders happen and nobody staying in the inn is above suspicion.


The sexual politics that were so frustrating is that her ex-husband acts like a total dick the whole time, even to the point of being so aggressively creepy that she thinks he is the killer (and Stewart leads the reader into suspecting him as well).  Of course, it turns out that he isn't and he even sort of saves her and then there is this really terrible scene where he declares his love for her and she realizes she still loves him and its all suddenly hunky-dory.  The whole idea of being divorced is presented as an untenable choice throughout the book and that it is superior to marry the jerky manipulator than to just stay single even if you are a beautiful, smart, brave and hardworking woman.

The other disappointment was that the mystery of the murders wasn't complex at all.  There was no link between the murdered and the potentially interesting conflicts among the guests at the inn.  He was basically just a psycho.  So there was nothing for the reader to dig into and try and guess who or why was responsible.  Finally, I guessed it about halfway through because Stewart's double blinds were too obvious.  Again, only her second book and the descriptions of the locale (which I would love to visit) evocative and the characters rich.  And the psycho is into some old-school Wicker Man style paganism, which is cool.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

19. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I follow some people on my Google+ feed who are big fans of gothic literature and it is from them that I learned of the Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first gothic fiction.  It turns out meezly had a nice paperback copy of it in her bookshelf (which is a growing source of potential good reads for me). 

This is a weird book.  It is far from gothic in tone.  It's actually quite absurd and funny.  Just to give you an idea, at the very beginning of the book, the sickly son of the Prince of Otranto, who is going to be strategically married to a neighbouring Duke's daughter, is killed by a giant plumed helmet that falls out of the sky.  What follows is a story of political and courtly intrigue as seen from the perspective of several characters. The Prince is the principal figure (to call him a protagonist does not capture what a maniacal asshole he is) and once his son is dead, he becomes obsessed with marrying Princess Isabelle (who was supposed to have become his daughter-in-law).  We also follow his wife and daughter, the priest (who shelters Isabelle) and a handsome, idealistic young foreigner.

The layout of the writing makes it difficult to read.  I don't know if it was this edition or that was the way it was orginally written, but there are paragraphs that last several pages, with back and forth dialogue and a lot of narrative all crammed in there.  Some of these passages, I suspect, are supposed to be quite humorous.  The dialogue involves one person repeatedly not getting to the point of what they said they were going to say while the other one keeps exhorting them to get to the point.  I found it tiring.  The action picks up in the second half and it ends up being somewhat enjoyable.

The gothicness of it is more in the themes and locations:  unknown birthrights, mysterious strangers, evil momarchs, the haunted castle, the catacombs underneath, a gloomy forest, etc.  I'm sure I am not doing justice to this book, as it is from the 18th century and has been studied extensively by scholars.  I'm glad I read it, though.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

18. Adrano/For Hire 1 - The Corsican Cross by Michael Bradley

The front cover of this striving for respectability men's adventure novel is a bit of a mess with a photo, an illustration and way too many typefaces.  The back cover, however, is awesome.  Two dudes in a Greek diner smoking!  A guy reading a book!  The guy reading the book is actually a significant moment.  There definitely were several scenes of mafiosi eating, but I don't remember a particularly important one taking place in a restaurant.

It wasn't the back cover that attracted me to the book, but the idea of the young buck advancing his career by shaking up the boring old organization.  I always enjoy corporate politics in crime and the added anti-establishment theme was icing on the cake. Adrano even makes a favourable metaphor with himself and the hippies in one section.  It's clear the author is sympathetic to that movement as well.  I was hoping Adrano's plan would be a bit more intelligent and complex.  It was all a bit preposterous but not insanely so and the execution along the way was quite enjoyable.

Glorious Trash writes a much more thorough review here.  He is much more critical of the protagonist and I don't have a strong argument against his position.  I just personally didn't find him quite so arrogant.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

17, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Now that my wife has got her books unpacked on a beautiful new set of shelves, I am able to peruse her collection, which is quite interesting.  We share a lot of taste in genre, but her authors are wildly different than mine.  I was going through them when she suggested I try Fingersmith.  The narrative kept you hooked and it had hot lesbian action.  That was enough for me.  I see now that I had added it to my to read list when I read her original blog post, but had completely forgotten.

You should probably just read her post, as it does a much better job than I could of capturing the books qualities.  But for form's sake here goes:

Very simply, Fingersmith is a Dickens from a 21st century perspective.  And perhaps a bit more neatly structured.  The book starts out in a house of lower class petty criminals, their primary source of income being fencing.  The protagonist, Susan, is a teenage girl who was adopted by the matron of the home Susan is inducted into a plot to trick a young, naive country heiress of her fortune.  Her role is to act as the lady's maid to encourage her to sneak off with Gentleman, a gentleman fallen down in class and morals.

I will say no more as the story really does take you off on a ride where you want to find out what happens next.  I think because of it has lesbians, pornography and a lot of women suffering from male power, this book gets a lot of literary love.  That may be well earned, but for me it is just a tightly written, entertaining story where you really care about what happens to the characters.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

16. Weekend by Christopher Pike

Found this at the free box on St-Viateur (where my wife sometimes finds good kids clothes).  Again, I'm picking up anything that I can easily read without worrying about damaging.  This looked pretty trashy, but the 80s-ness of it appealed to my me and the first page was actually not badly written.

I was a chapter in before I realized that this was specifically written for teenagers in mind and I now know that Point was an imprint of Scholastic.  It also got bogged down in all these relatively complex relationships between a group of guys and girls going to Mexico for a weekend holiday.  At one point, I was seriously considering drawing up a relationship map on a piece of paper just to keep it all straight.  But I powered through.  Then what drove me on was to see how violent and how supernatural it might actually be.  I have to admit to that the intrigue of the story kept me turning the pages.

It turns out that there is a lot of tension and anxiety in this group of seniors soon to graduate.  Besides break-ups, rivalries and betrayals, one of them was actually poisoned at the party, her kidneys destroyed and now surviving on a dialysis machine.  It is she and her sister who have invited everybody down.  But weirdly, only the kids involved in the night of the poisoning plus one mysterious new boy are the ones who actually make it.  Also, they encounter a strange shaman-like man on the route who talks to ravens and seems to see through their soul.

It's a bit of a mess and preposterous, but quite a lot of fun for most of the book.  I can see how it would have been popular back in the 80s among the appropriate demographic (I'm guessing grade 9 girls or so).  The ridiculously happy ending brings it all back down from the dark promise of the middle, but that is probably okay given its target audience.  I have a vague feeling in the back of my mind that I have read something by Christopher Pike back in the day, but I might be mixing him up with the first captain of the Enterprise.

Monday, October 06, 2014

15. Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

After finishing Roseanna, I wanted to seize on to my new found reading momentum but unfortunately did not have any disposable trade paperbacks that I wanted to read.  Desperately, I went to my own bookshelves and re-discovered the Eric Ambler omnibus edition that I had found in an unmanned use bookstore/barn on the side of the road in Ontario's cottage country.  The book is called Intrigue and contains four of the classics of Ambler's early period:  Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger.  It also has an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock which I shall read upon completing this post.

Journey into Fear was excellent.  A naive British engineer traveling to Turkey at the beginning of the Second World War suddenly finds his life threatened by Axis spies.  They want to delay the deal he worked between his armaments firm and the Turkish government.  After a failed assassination attempt in his hotel room in Istanbul, the Turkish secret service have him put on a small freighter to Genoa.  There are a dozen other passengers or so and the bulk of the intrigue takes place on the ship, as his naiveté is slowly stripped from him and he learns the true nature of the world and the war that is building up momentum around him.

Ambler is probably the progenitor of the realist school of espionage fiction.  His heroes are oftne not heroic and the bad guys can be quite banal, even pathetic.  However, he does, at least in the earlier books, have clear good guys and bad guys.  It's interesting reading them today, in the post LeCarré world.  I wasn't sure at which point it would be clear who were the good guys and bad guys.  The twist for me was that there was no twist, if you see what I mean.  Despite the traditional form of protagonist and antagonist, Journey into Fear is at its core a fairly dark and pessimistic book and probably reflects Ambler's own awakening to the horrors of the war as they came to touch upon everyone in England.

What I particularly enjoyed about Journey into Fear is the role that manners play in the intrigue.  Every interaction has layers of breeding, nationality the social expectations of the situation.  Underneath all that are the true motivations of the characters.  Even when it is time to put ones cards on the table, everybody remains unfailingly civilized, politely discussing the various reasons why one would not wish to kill the other person but would do so if it were made absolutely necessary.

[In looking for an existing online image of the cover, I see that The Sun King has a different version of Intrigue with a different cover and only three novels and no intro by Alfred Hitchcock.  Will this start an international game of cat and mouse as he does everything in his power to obtain my copy?  Or should I simply reveal that mine is a Book Club edition, the shabby bourgeois riding the third class car of book collecting to save him the trouble and expense?]

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

14. Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Trade paperbacks may have pulled Olman's Fifty from the edge of the pit!

I am alive, I have been reading, albeit very slowly (up to 14 so far this year as you can see).  I have a child now and have significantly more responsibilities at work after a timely promotion.  However, these are really minor factors in my blogging decline.  It's these godamned tablets!  They are like the crack cocaine version of the internet and I have been spending almost all my leisure hours with my cracked lips sucking on the pipe.  It's pathetic.  Google+ believe it or not is particularly insatiable, consuming my hours as I sit there hunched over, drool collecting on the corner of my lip, reading snippet after snippet on pulp fiction covers, tabletop RPG gaming controversy and sports gossip.  It's pathetic.

But these last months I have slowly grown weary and the well is getting drier and drier.  My wife discovered a garage sale with some great kids books and we went back together.  They had several of the Inspector Martin Beck books in good trade paperback form and I grabbed the first one for a dollar.  I realized that I have several vintage paperbacks that I want to read, but I am too scared to crack them open for fear of damaging them.  I got into used paperbacks in the first place oh so many years ago because I am so rough with books and wanted something I could keep with me at all times and conditions and not worry about their condition.  Now that the traditional paperback has become a niche collectible, I can no longer afford to do that.  I was anti-trade paperback for many reasons, but since more and more good books (i.e. non-literary fiction) have been re-released in trade paperback form, I suspect we will be seeing more and more of them show up in used book stores and garage sales.  Well this Roseanna was a start anyways and I devoured it in a day, spilled milk and water on it, knocked it off the side of the bed and put it in a backpack with a soiled diaper bag and bread crumbs.

I should have bought them all, but was wary of commitment at this early stage of my reading rehabilitation.  Roseanna is a straight-up detective procedural, utterly focused on the investigation and a frustrating and slow one that is somehow neither for the reader.  A woman shows up dead in the bucket of a lock dredger in Sweden.  At first, they can't even identify her, let alone generate a list of suspects.  Martin Beck is called in from Stockholm and he and his colleagues doggedly keep at it until little by little they start unearthing more and more information, some by luck, some by smart investigation but most by exhausting every possible channel of dogged info gathering.  It's extremely satisfying to read about people who work hard in a quiet, often unpleasant but determined and relentless way.  The ending was quite tense, though the thriller aspect at the end felt a bit forced.  From the introduction, the entire series is a 10-book examination of the Swedish investigation bureau and if the characters evolve and the investigations continue like this one, I will definitely get into it.  I'm glad I finally stumbled upon what most detective readers have known for a long time.

[As for reviews of the previous 13 books for this year, I have noted the time of their reading but haven't actually written reviews.  May write a few but may also just throw in a brief sentence or two to note their having being read.  Thanks for your patience!]

Friday, August 15, 2014

12. Unforsaken Hiero by Sterling E. Lanier

I read this book during our rainy vacation in the Gatineau region of Quebec in August, but I am only now getting around to writing the review.  My memory is fuzzy.  The Unforsaken Hiero is the sequel to  Hiero's Journey and basically continues the saga.  The story this time gets deeper into the civilizations to the south.  Hiero ends up marrying a princess from the kingdom of D'waleh which is sort of like a post-apocalyptic liberal east coast world, where they are enlightened and welcome many faiths.  The Unclean are everywhere of course and their machinations result in the mellow kingdom being nearly destroyed and Hiero kidnapped.  He escapes and the second half of the book is his epic journey across the wastelands where some really cool encounters happen, including the mutated giant telepathic snail.

Overall, though, this one feels rushed compared to the first.  Too much of the world is revealed too quickly, so that it loses its sense of mystery.  The larger scale political conflicts come to the fore, but the scope is not wide enough to make it really satisfying.  It is still enjoyable, but I think I would have preferred everything to have been slowed down, even if that may have been frustrating to me as an adolescent.  It felt like Lanier was trying to pack everything into this book so he could deliver a more satisfying conclusion (perhaps at an editor's pressuring).  But this story began as a hero's journey type of story and the slow growth of Hiero's knowledge and powers was what made the first book so enjoyable.  Ironically, it ends on a cliffhanger with the fate of his princess still not resolved.

Still, an enjoyable read and the whole section with the giant snail was awesome.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

11. The Ohlone Way by Malcolm Margolin

I rarely read non-fiction, as you well know.  A colleague at work, who is very skilled at getting people to do things, pressed this upon me and I aquiesced as the subject matter was interesting to me.  It's an accessible study of the way the aboriginal people of what is today the San Francisco Bay Area lived before the white man came.  I like the Bay Area and I am curious about what it is that makes the colonial culture so different and destructive compared to the supposedly idyllic cultures that were here originally. The Ohlone way is also a classic in the field and spawned a publishing house and a rich field of study.

The most striking thing about the description of these people's world was the insane abundance of food.  It was a kind of paradise.  These societies were extremely primitive, technologically.  Much of their time was dedicated to gathering food, hunting or fishing.  But there really seemed to be no scarcity.  The second most striking thing was that there also seemed to be no history.  There was so little change in their social structure over time as well as a cultural reaction towards death which was not to talk about it and not to preserve the memory of the deceased.  There are some obvious simple conclusions you can draw from this like the natives were peaceful and unchanging because they had so much food while the colonialists were aggressive and tool-building because they needed to do that to survive in their histories.  It is probably risky to draw those conclusions though (and the book doesn't), but it's an interesting start.

10. The Deal by G. William Marshall

The Deal might be one of the weirdest books I've ever read.  Oddly obscure as well, given its trade dress and genre (the 70s Hollywood scandal blockbuster fiction).  I picked it up on a whim outside Westcott books on the Main (this is actually quite a classic old used bookstore that got booted from its old downtown spot into my neighbourhood, unfortunately at a time when I became very picky about my book buying).  This is quite likely confirmation bias (probably the definition of it), but I have gotten pretty good about picking completely unknown books that turn out to be enjoyable and The Deal is another example of that.

I'm not telling anybody that this is a good book.  It is written in an annoying informal style with an equally annoying non-traditional structure that is basically abandoned about halfway through.  It starts out with chapters that are these character studies with titles like "The Lawyer", "The Actress".  But once the actual story gets going, it is pretty entertaining.  The story is told from the perspective of a hotshot young producer who steals away a major star for an exclusive 5-picture deal.  The star is an insane narcissist and notorious partier.  The story is their relationship and the chaos surrounding the production of the movies.  Here is the kicker.  The star has a super tiny penis and not only cannot satisfy any women, he cannot even satisfy himself!  I told you this book was weird.  He even has the prop guy make him a super realistic-looking prosthetic penis that he can actually use.

The star gets in worse and worse trouble and the productions become more and more difficult.  The final calamity is a super disturbing rape murder that ultimately seals this book into the trash category.  It's kind of a sad cop-out really, because there was enough madness leading up to the ending that there was no need to go down the tired (even in 1967) misogyny trope road.

The star is known only as The Baron or Baron in the book.  The cover claims that it was based on a real star and the author was a producer who made a few movies with Errol Flynn near the end of his career.  He was known to lead a pretty hedonistic life.  Did he really have a small penis or was that just revenge on the author's part?

Monday, August 11, 2014

9. Night Cry by William L. Stuart

I love the colours on this cover.
I had been looking for this forever after having read the review in Vintaged Hardboiled Reads (been too long, August West) and found it at Kayo Books in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, the paperback was too beautiful and old to read in any normal situation so it had to wait until the vacation when I knew I would be reading in long stints and could keep it in a safe place.

Whoah, this was a tough book!  If you like noir and can get your hands on this, just read it.  I will be giving some initial spoilers away here.  The book begins with a couple leaving a bar and the guy getting into a scuffle with the bouncer.  Later the bouncer is found dead and it seems pretty clear that the guy did it.  Tough guy cop Mark Devlin, who is the protagonist, goes to the boyfriends house.  Assuming he did it, he punches him in the gut and then the head, I guess that was just standard procedure in those days.  Except here he kills him.  Let me tell you this scene was like a punch in the gut.  It really took me a few moments to absorb what had just happened.  It's really brutal and just so frank.  Devlin's mistake, though, is not that he killed the guy, but subsequently trying to hide it.  Things get complicated and dark.  Great book.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

8. Call of the Wild by Jack London

Not the version I read.
Ah vacation!  It is here where I consciously made an effort to jump start my reading again.  We rented a cabin a little ways out in the country.  It turned out to have wi-fi, but I brought no devices with me.  What's more, the weather complied and after three days of beautiful sunny lake weather, it rained for the entire rest of the week.  Actually kind of depressing, but we made the most of it including a lot of reading.
It started with The Call of the Wild.  My friend Mike gave me this book years ago, convinced I would love it and that it was a quick read.  I think precisely because it was so short, I kept putting it off.  There was also some trepidation about something bad happening to an animal.  Well now that I have completed I can confirm that he was right on.  It's a fantastic book and right up my alley.  I haven't read a ton of Jack London, but I loved the Sea Wolf and now that I've read this, I should probably read more of his stuff.
It's the story of a powerful but soft dog who is kidnapped from his California estate and sold to sled drivers in Alaska's gold rush.  The dog's core is powerful and wild.  Much of the book is about his struggle, but he slowly finds his true calling in the brutal and exhausting world of mining and transport in the North.  This is stirring stuff and London takes the idea as far as it can go.  The ending is almost supernatural.  A great read. I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

7. It's my Funeral by Peter Rabe

I picked this up at Kayo Books.  They had a decent collection of Rabes at pretty good prices.  This was one of the cheaper ones.  I ended up finishing it at 2:30 in the morning after being awakened by my daughter.  Soft ending, but some pretty intense and satisfying tough guy stuff the middle.  A precursor to Get Shorty with the protagonist being an ex mafia guy trying to go straight in Hollywood who gets mixed up with one of his old colleagues who is now working a blackmail scheme with a big-time producer.  It's my Funeral did not put Rabe on the map, but it's a decent crime story from its period.

Hmm, interesting, I just learned from Existential Ennui that the protagonist of It's my Funeral, career gangster Daniel Port, is a recurring character.  He leads five of Rabe's novels!  I maybe should pay more attention to see if that continuity is interesting.  The character has potential for sure.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

6. Merchants of Menace edited by Hillary Waugh

Whose heads are those?
[Review hastily written October 7, 2014, actually completed reading as of the date of this blog post.]

Now this was a find.  It was in a box of books outside a house sometime in the early summer.  Obviously the title, the sub-title ("An Anthology of Mystery Stories by the Mystery Writers of America") and the date (1969) were appealling to me.  But I hesitated because it was short stories and this was at the nadir of my reading this year.  Well hesitation was gone when I saw that the third story was by Donald Westlake!  It's called Domestic Intrigue and was originally published in the Saint magazine from 1966 as well as Westlake's collection The Curious Facts Preceding my Execution and other Fictions.  Stories by Robert Bloch, Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith rounded it out as well.

I thought I was just going to read the Westlake story, but that was over way too quickly.  It's more like a clever joke, almost a shaggy dog story than a complete tale, but tight and clever nonetheless.  I kept reading and found several gems.  The Front Room by Michael Butterworth particularly stood out.  It's a super creepy and darkly funny story of a newly-married couple staying in a beach bungalow at the far end of a road where their landlords are an old lady and her simple son.

All in all a fun read and this appears to be an actual hardback first edition, though pretty beat up.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

5. Clemmie by John D. MacDonald

[Review written October 7, 2014, date of this post is when I actually read it.]

I can't remember where I picked up Clemmie.  I am choosy with MacDonald paperbacks, because they are easy to come by and his style is so strong that you can overindulge and become sick of it.  I couldn't resist this cover, nor this awesome back jacket blurb:
She was very young. She was dangerous.
She was a girl who lived too close to the edge of violence.
She hunted trouble. She was an exhibitionist, a body-worshipper, a sensualist.
She was without morals, scruples, ethics. She was beautiful. She was CLEMMIE . . .
Ah, those body worshippers!

It's the story of a struggling middle-class, middle-management man whose wife takes the kids away back to England for the summer and leaves him alone in their imperfect house and his imperfect job.  He is really a flawed character, probably the most flawed I've encountered in a John D. MacDonald book.  His characters usually are fairly heroic and altruistic, though sometimes with a weakness.  This guy just seems really weak right from the beginning.  You get a sense, though, that it's not entirely his fault and that the situation he is in does generally kind of suck.  So he meets Clemmie accidently and she sucks her beatnik fangs right into his weakness.

This was a fantastic read. It's not perfect.  It's weighted down by the mores of its time, the antagonist is an idiot and the ending is a bit pat.  But wow it gets really crazy.  It sets up the hero with a lot to lose and then keeps pushing him to lose more and more.  It's the early 60s striving middle class and I've ready so many books about male characters struggling against that stifling environment, but in Clemmie he really just smashes it all to hell and it is a most enjoyable ride.  This is probably the best portrait of a drinking binge that I have ever read.  You almost feel drunk yourself reading it.

There is also lots of great class and generational tension.  Clemmie herself is of course from a super rich family (which contributes to some of the patness of the ending) and the "creative" society she keeps seems like a strange mix of two distinct "others" to the bourgeois of that time: the upper class and the incoming generation.

Though I loved the book and the paperback was gorgeous, I gave it away to some friends who just had a daughter and named her Clementine.  They got quite a kick out of it.  I wonder if she'll ever read it?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

4. The Iron Gates by Margaret Millar

[Review written October 7, 2014, but actually read at the date of this post.]

I found this paperback at the Brattle bookstore in Boston.  Unfortunately, I dog-eared the cover accidently.  Still, a nice find.  This is one of Millar's earlier works and you can see in it strongly (perhaps too strongly) her gothic side and her detective side.  It's a convoluted mystery that peels away the layers of a twisted family as well.  Lucille Morrow is the second wife to a successful town doctor who lives at home with his two grown children and his possessive old maid sister.  His first wife died under mysterious circumstances many years before.  The book begins with a series of random incidents that result in Lucille running away and disappearing.  As the family reacts, we learn more about each of them and how messed up each of them is (quite).  In the second half of the book, we delve deep into Lucille's crushed psyche.  This is where Millar really excels.  In this case, though, I found it all a bit too long and convoluted and by the time the truth came out, I was a bit tired of the whole affair.  Also, there is not a pleasant character in the book, except for Inspector Sands of the Toronto police, but he is really just a mechanism to move the plot forward and to let the reader see what is going on.

I am probably being overly critical in this short, late review.  Millar is still really one of the best writers of this kind of criminal insanity.  It's just note one of my favourite of hers.

Friday, February 21, 2014

3. Lizard Music by D. Manus Pinkwater

[Actually written on October 2, 2014, but publish date is set to when I read the book earlier in the year.]

Lizard Music is a favourite from my childhood.  I'd been keeping an eye out for it for a while.  All I remembered is the eery opening chapters, about a kid living in suburban New Jersey left alone at home who discovers a weird show of lizard musicians late at night on after hours television.  There is something haunting and evocative about it and probably plays into the culture-hunting that was so much a part of my own adolescence.  I was also just a fan of Daniel Pinkwater's books in general.  But Lizard Music always stood out for me as being slightly darker and more mysterious.

Now that I have read it again to the end, I realize that it is just as goofy and fun as his other works and wildly surreal. It turns into a fantastic adventure, almost pulp-like but with a wacky post-hippie '70s mentality.  The story is about Victor, a 10-year old kid left alone by his parents with his teenage sister.  He is very independent and treats her with a sympathetic disdain.  She is so caught up in her teenage world that she doesn't even realize he is out of the house on his own adventures.  His stumbling across the strange lizard variety show leads him to the city where he runs into various weirdos like The Chicken Man and Claudia.  It's really hard to do justice to the style of Pinkwater's writing and milieu by describing the story so I will leave it at that.  You should get it into the hands of any pre-adolescent kid who might identify as quirky.  Pinkwater makes it awesome to not be normal.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2. Slayground by Richard Stark

During this re-read of the Parker series, I have mentioned several times now in reviewing various titles that said title may be vying for the spot of best Parker book.  Well we can just put that to rest right now.    At this point, Slayground is the hands-down winner.  Now there is a tiny possibility that Butcher's Moon could knock if off at the last second, but it is very doubtful.  Slayground is not the first Parker book I ever read.  I'm pretty sure that was The Green Eagle Score, which was on the shelves of a book distribution company I worked at in the early 90's.  Later, though, when I had moved to New York, I found a hard copy of Slayground (the  book club edition of the 1971 Random House at the top of the page here), read it, loved it and passed it on to a friend which started us on a Parker-hunting craze.  So I credit it with turning me from an appreciator of Stark's work to the fanatic I am today.

[SPOILER ALERT!  YOU REALLY SHOULD JUST GET SLAYGROUND AND READ IT.  Why deny yourself pleasure?  If you haven't read it, reading my blathering below is like reading a restaurant review of a delicious meal that is right around the corner of your hosue and affordable.  Why not just get the real thing?]

Upon rereading it in 2014, the exquisite craft of Slayground has only been reinforced in my mind.  The opening chapter is a master class in in medias res (and let's not forget another genius Westlake metaphor, the armoured car wheels turning "like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep") .  I had remembered that, but I had completely forgotten how brilliantly and efficiently the entire novel is set up in the final paragraph of that opening chapter.  Parker standing there in the cold, just about to run into a closed amusement park (his only choice with sirens coming, his escape car totalled) glimpses behind him to see in the parking lot across the way two crooked cops getting a payoff from two local outfit men (another genius metaphor, the black mafia Lincoln "as deeply polished and gleaming as a new shoe").  Right there, that is everything you need to know.  It's a brilliant premise and takes the book from escaped heister with cash avoiding cops to escaped heister with cash trapped in a closed amusement park in the dead of winter while the entire organized crime racket of the area comes in to hunt him down and get the money.  It's a quantum step up in coolness.

Now that would be enough right there.  But no!  Westlake develops that basic premise in a few more chapters of Parker ascertaining that he truly is trapped, that the legit cops were scent on a wild goose chase and he then begins to prepare for the eventual hunt.  This only takes up the first 40 pages of the book and then we are brought into part two, the viewpoint shift that is a hallmark of the Parker books.  This time, we get to meet the two crooked cops, one more experienced and corrupt and definitely wanting to get his hands on Parker's stolen cash, the other already nervous about being on the take and feeling like hunting a man down and killing him, criminal or not, may be crossing his moral line.  We also get to see the syndicate men, one a rising star in the local mob and the other his strong arm man.  When you read this section, you realize the depth that Westlake is going to bring to the book.  We could be satisfied with the game of cat and mouse with Parker the mouse, but we are going to also really learn about the characters who make up the cat, thus making Parker's kicking of their ass that much richer and complex.  Furthermore, we also get a glimpse into how the local outfit is structured and who are the people that make it up.

This is all 40 pages in and it got me so excited that my poor wife had to suffer my effusive exposition of the points made above while she was trying to get something done (I still haven't entirely lost the adolescent boy in me whose over-enthusiastic and point-by-point retelling of movies I had seen inspired a rule banning me from talking about movies with the rest of my family).  The rest of the book fully delivers on its promise.  It actually goes even farther, though I was ignorant of this at the time, in setting the stage for the orchestral climax of the Parker series, Butcher's Moon.  I wonder if Westlake knew he was setting it up at the time?

And how is this not a good movie already?  Oh yes, Hollywood is retarded.  Anyhow, if anybody has any brains and muscle out there, Slayground is basically already perfectly storyboarded.

So right now, the top three Parkers are: 1) Slayground, 2) The Jugger and 3) Deadly Edge.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

1. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Almost but not quite my edition
I chose this my third Trollope novel as part of the long book strategy to break me out of not reading at all.  So far it seems to have worked, as I steadily made my way through Phineas Redux and even got quite caught up in it at several points.  A big advantage to reading Trollope is that all his work is in the public domain, so if you forget your hardcopy, you can always download it at Gutenburg and read it on your phone or tablet.  No need to bother with synching products that tie you in to one provider either, because Trollope wrote in short, well-labelled chapters.  You just remember the name of the chapter you were on and it is then quite easy to find where you last left off.

I chose Phineas Redux simply because I found it somewhere (I think the free store on Lasqueti Island actually) and it was a beat-up paperback that I didn't need to worry about preserving.  It turns out that this is actually the 4th book in the Palliser series and that last Trollope I read (way back in the summer of 2011), The Eustace Diamonds, was the 3rd!  So now by all the laws of mightly Biblius, I must read the entire series, or at least books 5 and 6.

Phineas Redux is the story of Phineas Finn, the eponymous Irishman from the second book in the series (and who plays only the most incidental role in the Eustace Diamonds).  He was once and up-and-comping Liberal MP, who made a political sacrifice and returned to Ireland to marry and work an administrative job.  But his wife died in childbirth and in Phineas Redux he comes back to take another stab at the parliamentary life.  There are several storylines going through this, including a romantic one. The biggest theme is his struggle with the value of being a politician.  At first, he easily reverses his positions depending on what the party asks of him or if it is necessary to win an election.  As things become complicated, and he doesn't receive the expected support from the leaders of the party, he begins to doubt his career choice.

At first, I found it less focused and more like a soap opera than his other two books that I had read.  I also found some of the characters most unlikeable.  Phineas himself becomes kind of a wet sock for a while as well.  But by the end, I was convinced that their actions and behaviour reflected a realistic portrayal of political ennui and disenchantment.  I think, though, that on the whole I am leaning more towards the Barsetshire series, rather than the Palliser, because the location is so much richer in the former.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Year End Wrap-up

[This is actually being written on February 12, 2014, I just wanted to get it into the correct order.]

Ugh, rough year.  My worst year since I started the 50 books challenge.  I do have a good excuse, which is that I got onto the procreation train in late 2012 and a lot of my time and energy has been dedicated towards raising a rocking little girl.  Honestly, though, I can't fairly attribute being a father to my dropoff in productivity, at least not directly.  The time when I should have been reading was spent dicking around on the internet.  Now it could be that the sleep deprivation and the energy consumption meant that I was just not capable of doing anything more than +1'ing Google+ posts and scrolling through my Twitter feed.  Still, you look at the Sun King, who also jumped on the daughter bandwagon (possible to say that I made the waters safe for him? ;) ) and his productivity has barely dropped off.  I even had a nice burst in August where I had a fighting chance of approaching 50, but I just bailed in the fall and winter.

I'm too lazy to figure out my numbers, but they have certainly taken a major dip.  In terms of what I actually read, nothing really stands out.  I basically added on to threads that I had established in years past.  Deadly Edge stood out as a front runner for top 3 Parker books.  Daniel Dafoe's Journal of a Plague Year was interesting, entertaining and educational, as was Bare-Faced Messiah about L. Ron Hubbard and the sick origins of the Dianetics cult.

2014, well we shall see.  As I write this, I do feel that I have gotten the taste for the printed word back.  But my daughter's advanced pre-post-apocalyptic preparedness training regime will continue to be a priority and my job looks to also be quite rich and busy this year.  I'm too cowardly and weak-livered to actually make any kind of commitment, but in the back of my head I shall try to choose reading over noodling on the internet.  My appreciation to all of you who may read this.