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.