Saturday, December 31, 2016

18. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (book 1 of the First Law trilogy)

Well I had promised myself that I would try to avoid any books that were the start of a trilogy, simply because at my current slow reading rate, I can't afford to commit to more than one book at a time.  The Blade Itself was seductive enough (laying around at my parent's right next to the comfy armchair, strongly recommend by my brother-in-law who had left it there) that I decided to ignore the rule and I'm glad that I did.

First of all, it begins with a bang.  The first pages are a brief, but intense action moment, almost like starting after a cliffhanger that also revealed a really cool character.  From there, the book delivered a ton of the kind of political machinations that I like, more appealing and interesting characters and lots of great moments of ass-kicking and revelation of superior skills.  Though I doubted it was possible, the fantasy world is pretty interesting.  I love the dying empire element, especially to constrast (or render palatable) our own current dying empire scenario the U.S. seems to be accelerating towards.

I won't go into the storyline, because it is kind of complicated and the whole point of the first book is to slowly reveal all the layers of the story that is going to take up the rest of the trilogy (which I am now eager to keep reading).  But it's cool and fun as hell, believe me. If you like this sort of thing.  Which I do.

Friday, December 23, 2016

17. Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

I watched the latest Jack Reacher movie on the plane.  I did not have high hopes, but it actually was even slightly more mediocre than I had expected.  The bad guys were generic, the locations were generic (another drippy alley, another drippy warehouse, ah big chase during Mardi Gras!, etc.), the action was overly-edited and without any real excitement (though it had a certain brutality at brief moments).  Worse, the story got all caught up in a family metaphor which was really awkward with Tom Cruise trying weirdly to be human and normal (always a bad idea).  The only redeeming factor was the female lead, who was convincingly fit and (other than the aforementioned stupid "family" scenes where she and Reacher "argued") was a badass in her own right.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, was that it skimmed over the main thing that is cool about the Jack Reacher character: he's surrealisticly free.  The movie paints him as a kind of freelance MP detective, meting out justice and uncovering conspiracies.  But in the books, he is really a true drifter, who stumbles into situations that force him to use all his MP detective skills to mete out justice and uncover conspiracies.  I know it doesn't sound much difference, but believe me the real pleasure in the books is how Reacher is just walking places with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  He travels across the country with nothing, not even a wallet!  He is the modern-day equivalent of Saki's "unledgered wanderer" and every middle-age, middle-management white male family man wants a little, teeny bit to be that guy.

The beginning of Nothing to Lose exemplifies this perfectly.  Jack Reacher is in the middle of desert Colorado, halfway between the towns of Hope and Despair.  There is literally a dividing line on the highway, solid, new tarmac on the Hope side and crumbling, greyed-out road on the other.  The town of Despair is pretty despairing and weird as hell too as Reacher gets purposefully ignored by the few townsfolk and then aggressively rousted by the local constabulary.  Of course, he breaks some noses and then decides to go back and see what the hell is going on.  Lots of intriguing investigation, punctuated with ass-kicking and then finally busting into full-on chaos the way only Jack Reacher can do.  Ultimately, the journey was better than the payoff, but it was well worth it.  There are so many Jack Reacher novels, and the situations are all just exaggerated enough that you wouldn't want to read too many of them close together, but it is great to know they are out there when you need an easy and entertaining read.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

16. The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison

I picked this up from a stack of my nephew's books.  His dad said they hadn't read it because it was too old for him.  I don't know what prompted me to pick it up, but I am glad I did, because it is the best fantasy book I've read in a while and probably one of the most enjoyable books I've read of any genre in the last decade or so.

It's the story of an exiled orphan, who is yanked from his role as bullied supplicant to the capital city where he learns that he had become the emperor.  The story is about him going from fearful, inexperience naif to someone who could actually manage the role of leader of an empire. There are dangers and challenges everywhere and the book is a super satisfying study of someone slowly finding confidence and opening his innate abilities to succeed and even do some good in the world.  I'm not doing a good job of selling this to you, but if you like courtly intrigue, diplomacy and battles of wit in a cool fantasy setting, you should check this book out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Read this during our late summer vacation at PEI, but am only unfortunately reviewing it on New Year's Day 2017.   So an extremely truncated review that does not accurately reflect how much I thought about this book.  I was overall disappointed.  I found the storyline much less naturalistic and more overtly emotional than Middlemarch.  That being said, I found the ending really painfully sad and it stayed with me for quite a while.  The portrayal of the middle agricultural class and the family of sisters who had achieved various levels within that class was rich and entertaining.  These aunts and their intense pressure to conform to certain behaviours gave me a better understanding of some of the parents of my friends on Vancouver island (many of whom had emigrated from Britain).  However, major parts of the storyline felt melodramatic and forced on to this deep backdrop, giving the book overall an inconsistent and unsatisfying feel, at least for me.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

14. Pentallion by Vanessa Blake

I have to admit that I am feeling quite pleased with myself having read this book.  Now, I am sure there is a large group of gothic romance readers out there who would read these words and think of me as a total newbie.  I am pleased, because I suspected that the genre of gothic romance would deliver some of the same kind of thrill that I have gotten from the more masculine genres of crime and action that I have spent most of my life reading.  I picked up Pentallion in the dollar box outside the way too cluttered Westcott Books on the Main (so cluttered that I actually don't go inside anymore because the entrance is blocked by several precarious stacks of books as high as my shoulder and leaving about probably just a little over 2 feet of space to get through) and it did not disappoint!

At first, it felt heavy-handed, with a ton of exposition being dumped on the reader in the first few pages: a young woman, Rosanna, whose father was a British spy in the Peninsular wars and mother a Portuguese lady is left orphaned in her small house in the countryside outside Lisbon.  There is immediate danger from neighbour and supposed benefactor "Dom Luiz" who had wormed his way into her father's society and now has designs on Rosanna Pentallion herself.  However, she is quickly saved by the arrival of her aunt and cousin, who take her back to her family estate in England.  The narrative relaxed at this point and eased into the real story.  I won't go into details, but it has all the classic elements of the gothic romance: the jealous relatives who are up to unrevealed shenanigans, the sworn enemy of her father who also happens to be ruggedly handsome and of good character, hidden wills, dangerous cliffs, miscommunications, faithful servants and so on.

Most of it was kind of predictable, but I still actually got a bit teary when the lovers finally understand each other and I was psyched when the conniving family members got theirs (though Blake pulls the punches with them so that the only real antagonist is Dom Luiz whose "hooked nose, hooded eyes, and excessively swarthy skin hinted of a Moorish strain.").

I am looking forward to finding more of these as I am sure there are some writers in this field who could take the form to an even higher place.  As it is, Vanessa Blake did a more than adequate job in keeping me entertained and I hope to see some of the variations that others will bring.  Good stuff!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

13. One More Sunday by John D. MacDonald

I don't know if it is because summer is here (though I wasn't actually on vacation) or just the power of John D. MacDonald's page-turning prose, but I burned through this book.  One More Sunday is one of his later, thick "dramatic" novels (which I guess means not in the specific crime or mystery genre).  It's the story of a mega-church in the south.  Though there is a mystery that is in the center of it (a journalist disappears who was sent to cover the church), the book is really about the inner workings of the church, the flaws of all the humans that run it and it's slow descent into collapse as their human weakenesses pull it apart. 

I loved the first half, as MacDonald really delves into the setting, giving great details on the church's history, its geography and how it is run.  You get to see the database behind its fundraising, the operation that answers (and takes money from) the thousands of letters received each day, the security, the finances, its reslationships with big politicians and so on.  Things tend to get a bit saccharine and slightly unreal in parts in the second half, especially as characters have some dialogue that sounds very forced and unnatural.  There are a few too many uneducated hicks who somehow have a deep wisdom and a way too rich language to share that wisdom.  It also feels a bit rushed and in need of a tighter edit.  There are actually several typos, which suggest that it was actually rushed a bit.

Despite those minor flaws, I was hooked enough that I had to stay up late finishing it.  Something that happens very rarely to me these days, so I was grateful.  I love the way MacDonald doesn't pull his punches on sin.  Still in America, the media hems and haws on corruption and immorality of big names and we live in a culture where people still want to defend straight up scumbags because they are powerful or have celebrity.  There is none of that doubt in a John D. MacDonald book.  He shows you the big name preacher at his worst and it's very satisfying.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

12. A German Requiem by Phillip Kerr

The third of the Berlin Noir trilogy (though not the last of the Bernie Gunther series, I believe), A German Requiem takes place in Berlin and Vienna after the fall of the Reich.  It's another really cool setting and a great, if slightly forced, context for a private detective.  This time, Gunther is hired to get an old comrade in the Berlin police (and later the SS) off of a murder charge.  The plot gets complicated quickly, as anything does in post-war Germany, with the US, the other Allies and the Russians all fighting for power and slicing up the remains of the German pie, not to mention the old Nazis who may or may not still be running around.  It almost got too complicated, but was enjoyable all the way through.  Kerr does a great job of painting on evocative picture and Gunther is a great hard-boiled private eye with a conscience in the classic mold.  He can punch, shoot and fuck with the best of them.  The only real flaw is that this book also features a semi-innocent woman who has horrible things done to her.  It's probably not unrealistic for the setting, but it happened in two out of three books in the trilogy and it feels like it falls a bit on the exploitative side.  If you can handle those things, then I would say the Berlin Noir lives up to its billing. 

Holy crap, I just did a bit of research and see that Kerr has continued writing Bernie Gunther novels and that there are 11 now!

Sunday, July 03, 2016

11. The Garden of Evil (aka The Lair of the White Worm) by Bram Stoker

Picked up a paperback copy of this from the local thrift store and jumped right in.  I was quite psyched at first, as it had the classic Edwardian language and setup of the young scion coming back from Australia to meet his great-uncle.  Of course, the young man is of outstanding character and mettle and gets along famously with his elderly uncle, who is delighted to have discovered an heir of such quality.  Things get even richer, when we learn the history of the area where the uncle's estate is, one that exemplifies the ancient struggle between the evil of Roman heathenry and the good of Anglo-Saxon godliness.  Both forces are still very active in this valley, especially evil. 

So a great setup and there are some rich characters introduced early on that have a lot of promise, the super sinister Lord Caswall whose family is far too Roman in their genealogy and Lady Arabella, who wears a tight white frock to emphasize her impressively slim figure.  They are both up to shenanigans it is clear from the start. Unfortunately, the story does not live up to the promise of its beginnings.  The pacing is really inconsistent, with big events happening in a sentence while multiple chapters are spent on the nephew and Lord Nathaniel (his ally in fighting the supernatural) theorizing in the most inane way.  The plot also just seems to have some major holes where things don't make sense and major events have no impact on any of the characters.  It feels badly written.  I understand it was Stoker's last book and was published posthumously, but it's a real mess.  And I am pretty sure I am reading the unabridged version (there was a popular abridged version that had 28 instead of 40 chapters).

Despite the rough structure, there is a ton of pretty good supernatural action in this book.  The protagonists race the great worm in land and sea.  Mongooses are ripped in half.  And there is a full-on psionic battle that presages Scanners by over 60 years.  It's chock full of fun stuff, too bad that so much of it is quite bad.  A brief internet search showed me that it has landed on many worst of lists and I think that may have been fair.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

10. The Flower People by Henry Gross

Picked this up at a stall at the Marché de Nuit here, after flipping through it several times.  It's a series of interviews with people from the the "hippie" movement.  It was written in 1968 and while some may find the cover and the idea something to laugh at today, it's actually a pretty cool historical document.  The author is a bit heavy at first with some of his framing, but the vast majority of the interviews are just the various people speaking and it's really fascinating.  There interview subjects range from a young woman who is doing way too many drugs, a head shop owner who is sympathetic to the scene, but also taking care of himself, a bunch of people from a pretty chill commune in Connecticut and a bitter loner who couldn't fit in. 

What was the most eye-opening to me was how self-aware about the scene itself most people seemed.  I thought that things were still in pretty full bloom in 68, but the people here are all well aware of how many of the "hippies" are just upper middle class kids coming in from the suburbs for the weekend, about how commercial things had become and about how dependent (or derived from) drugs the culture was.  It's sort of depressing to see how little we have learned as a society since then.  One guy, a chemistry professor, talks about how he can't wait for us to properly embrace marijuana and study it so it can be understood and applied properly.  That only took us 50 more years and a devastating "war" on drugs and we are only now starting to figure that out.

A good read, but its seriousness made me want to jump back into my Freak Brothers omnibus!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

9. The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr

I've been hunting down the original British versions of Philip Kerr's now classic Berlin Noir trilogy (or close enough that the first three have been reprinted in their own "Berlin Noir" entitled omnibus), since I discovered them at a great open air book market in Amsterdamn.  They only had the second and third and I thought it was a trilogy and so held off on buying them.  I've been looking for the first one ever since, to no avail.  I stumbled on a decent copy of the second one (Penguin, 1991) in pretty beat up condition with a fade spine, so I thought I could actually read it.  But again, I wanted to start with the first one, March Violets.  I was at my friend, paperback aficionado Hannibal Chew's recently and he had the above-mentioned omnibus and lent it to me, but of course I forgot to take it.  So I just decided to relax my stringent policies for this one case and started The Pale Criminal.

I was glad I did, because I jumped right into it.  I was a bit surprised by the tone at first.  It really is a straight-up detective mystery.  I was expecting something else, not sure what, but from the first page, The Pale Criminal follows all the tenets of the form.  The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is the ex-cop loner with some sadness in his past and a dogged determination to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him.  He gets hired by an obese, wealthy woman to track down some blackmail letters showing her son to be a homosexual. 

After this traditional setup, things do veer into a deeper place, as Gunther gets picked up by the Gestapo for an interview with Heydrich himself, who reveals that there has been a string of serial killer like murders, the victims being blond, female teenagers, exemplars of Aryan youth.  I won't say anything more about the plot, but the storyline does open up and takes full advantage of the Nazi Germany setting.  The mystery is solid, but the portrayal of the Nazis in full power just before the invasion of the Sudetenland as seen by the eyes of a working stiff with some policy authority is what really makes this book resonate.  Nazi Germany and Hitler get thrown around a lot as internet memes and references to fascism, but whenever one is reminded of the actual reality of it, it is profoundly disturbing.  I am fortunate to have had a good high school education with a lot of emphasis on how the Nazis came to power as well as spending some time in college on it.  It really is something we should never forget, because humans unfortunately have an all to easy tendency to head down that road.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

8, Fletch's Fortune by Gregory McDonald

I'm really going back to my original reason for buying paperbacks, which was to be able to carry them with me anywhere and not worry about them getting damaged.  That means I am buying books these days that I don't want to worry about and this Fletch fell into that category (also a dollar).  I remembered enjoying a few of these as a teenager.  This one was just okay.  Fletch is a post-60s anti-establishment James Bond of a journalist who also solves murders.  He can be funny but I think the establishment he is mocking has changed so much that he comes off today as just being kind of trying too hard.  This story takes place at a journalist's convention where the president of the association gets murdered just as it begins.  It got moving near the end, but ultimately lacked weight and I've already moved on.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

7. The Black Company by Glen Cook

Not Tor's finest effort, cover-wise.
It took me forever to read this book.  It comes highly recommended in the well-read nerd community, but the prose style was just not doing it for me.  I think I sort of got it after a while.  It's supposed to read like those gritty war novels, except in a fantasy setting.  I like that conceit, but even with that understanding, I felt distanced.  The setup is cool.  The narrator is the medic and chronicler of a historic band of mercenaries in some fantasy land embroiled in war.  There is lots of cool fantasy battle scenes and fantasy grunts doing what they do in their downtime.  It gets epic, but ultimately didn't do it for me.  Another problem for me, and this may have been the edition, but it is very geographical (lots of strategic discussion about the war and which side has control of which region), but no friggin' map!  Come on. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

6. The Body on Mont-Royal by David Montrose

This is the third and last David Montrose book published by Vehicule Press.  I enjoyed it more than the other two.  Things actually happened, characters interacted and a rough mystery and crime narrative unfolded more or less amidst all the drinking.  It's also really violent, exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic at times (especially the beating the protagonist takes).  Still, it wasn't particularly enjoyable, beyond seeing 50s anglo Montreal in the noir detective context.  Even the portrayal of Montreal is lacking in how insanely un-French it is.  It's like Montrose lived in Toronto, had never met a francophone Quebecois and was writing about some fantasy Montreal.  The only french character is the police detective, who is shown as sympathetic, but not super bright (a Lestrade character basically) but with the goofiest accent. I mean it's fine to do a francophone speaking accented english, but if that is the way they spoke english in the 50s, shit has changed a lot.  This sounded to me more like Pepe le Pew.  I guess that probably does reflect the anglo reality before the Quiet Revolution, but you'd think at least detective fiction would try to portray the underclasses and oppressed a bit more realistically.

Also, I find the cover deeply uninspiring.  They couldn't have paid an illustrator to do a real pulpy cover or just copy the original Harlequin, which is actually quite nice?  I mean compare and contrast:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

5. Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

My wife picked this up and enjoyed it with some reservations.  It was thin and seemed like an important book in a sub-genre of fantasy.  Also Fritz Leiber (I need to reread his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories).  It is the story of a successful professor in a small, stuffy northeastern university in the late 40s who discovers that his wife has been using magic to protect him and boost his career. He is a rationalist and believes she is deluded and the book is about the mistakes he makes because of this and his slow realization of the truth. It actually gets pretty intense and all the spell details and magic explanation are well constructed and fun.  The setting too, with the various flawed faculty and their malevolent wives juxtaposed against the free spirit that is his wife and his own independence, is instantly sympathetic.  The ending was a bit pat and deflated some of the import and horror that the narrative had built up.  It's a short and enjoyable read, and lives up to the reputation touted by the publisher.  Recommended.  (heh heh, my wife recommended Conjure Wife.)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

4. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I was sort of done with Neal Stephenson.  I loved Snow Crash and The Cryptonomicon (the guy who recommended this to me accurately described it as "the kind of book you feel sad about when it is over") but just could not make it through the first book of the Baroque cycle.  So much nerdy diversion that was not in service of the story!  My brother-in-law helped bring me back into the fold first by convincing me I might like Reamde and then by giving it me for xmas.  I picked it up at the end of January and while it was a beast (1000+ pages) I had a hard time putting it down and was able to crank through a huge section during two train rides to Toronto.

It's still really nerdy, but the nerdiness is a light peppering rather than a deep sauce.  Actually, the very foundation of the book is pure nerd ideology.  That ideology says that if only people would base their existence on rationality and skills and not get caught up in social convention, they will then succeed and kick ass in all kinds of situations.  There is some truth to this and it is very appealing to an old ex-nerd like myself.  The dark side of this is the libertarian techbro dolt that we see all too often today and I'm sure a lot of them loved Reamde.  Stephenson doesn't take us down this far because he maintains a human, sympathetic side, but also because the priority here really is the story.

And it's a great, crazy story.  It somehow manages to be both empirical and theoretical at the same time.  It's empirical because he brings in a wild mix of characters and situations, whose behaviour and premises driver what happens next.  Yet at the same time the whole thing is structured into some neat unities (it all takes place in 3 weeks) and maintains several consistent, interesting themes (the virtual world vs. the real world; terrorism as a thing, far right rural wingnuts as real people, family).

Ultimately, it is a teeny bit too American jingoistic and the ending wasn't quite as satisfying as I had hoped (by the time you get to it, you can kind of guess how things will play out).  But the ride itself was thoroughly enjoyable and I will keep my eyes out for his next book.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

3. Dressed for Murder by Donna Leon

My mom left this when she came to visit last year, said it was quite readable but not top-notch.  I have to agree. The detective is intelligent, rational and moral in a world of corruption and politics. The setting, modern-day Venice, is cool, as the detective's lifestyle around it (buying fresh tomatoes and figs to prepare dinner).  They mystery was compelling and intricate.  A man's body is found in a field behind a slaughterhouse, a place where local prostitutes sometimes ply their trade.  The face is badly smashed and he is in woman's clothes.  The investigation leads to the transvestite prostitution scene in Venice and follows (of course) to well-placed and powerful political figures.  It all felt a bit light and the ending was a bit too easy.  Nevertheless, an enjoyable read and would work fine on a beach or winter cabin vacation.

Reading this, watching Foyle's War (about a similarly rational and moral detective but in England during WWII) and watching Making a Murderer, really makes me think about the idea of the fictional character of the detective.  Why do we love them so much?  Why are they so good?  Especially in the light of reality (at least in America and Canada) that most of them seem to be unethical bureaucrats at best and downright sociopathic murderers at worst.  I want to read more books about detectives where they are bumbling around, forcing cases into pre-conceived ideas, badgering witnesses, planting evidence and even straight-up murdering people.  What is going on in those detectives' heads?

Monday, January 11, 2016

2. The Shadow of the Lynx by Victoria Holt

I picked this up at the new (to me anyways) Pulpfiction Books East on Commercial in Vancouver.  It was in the dollar bin in front of the cash register.  I also found an intriguing Colin Wilson there.  The store was small and nicely curated, with a relaxing vibe to it.  I'll go back next time I'm in Vancouver.

Anyway, my interest in gothic romance had waned a bit since the last Mary Stewart, so I was wary.  Something about the cover and the masculinity of the title made me feel that it might hold my interest.  It did.  It promised some of what I had hoped the form would deliver in fast pace and dynamic storyline, similar in structure though not in content to the genre of men's action.  The Shadow of the Lynx starts with a young orphan on a ship to Australia, chaperoned by the son of her dead father's business partner.  There is drama right away, as the learns of her chaperone's father, a wronged British prisoner who, through the power of will, had become a wealthy entrepeneur and has a almost godlike charisma. The story twists and turns and comes full circle.  The resolution was a bit deflating, but the ride there was so enjoyable. 

It's cool the way a female protagonist (the orphan on the boat) has power and implements her will in the strictures of the patriarchy of that time (of both times actually, the narrative, which takes place in the Edwardian period, and the early 70s when it was written).  She is hemmed in by the constraints of masculine rule.  But within those constrains, it is the forthrightness of her character and the use of her wit to analyze situations that allows her to succeed.  She is also passive to events around her and decisions made by those more powerful than her (mostly men, probably entirely).  Yet somehow those parts of the book didn't feel frustrating to me.  I think because her inner monologue never gives up her spirit, so you respect her.

So yes an enjoyable read. Victoria Holt is a pro and I see was quite prolific. I don't think I am up for a steady diet of her books, but she will be something I will continue to look for and read when the time is right.  Nice to have discovered her. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

1. The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Yes, I did read the movie cover one
I found this in the apartment we were staying in and felt it would be an easily digestible start to the new year of reading.  It was a quick and enjoyable read, though it felt a bit more simplistic than the Harry Bosch books I had read by Connelly.  I liked the set up of the protagonist, he is kind of like the pre-Better Call Saul, not quite as full on sleazy but playing the same game.  He has no office, but just rides around in his Lincolns, talking on the cell phone and keeping his files in a storage locker.  The actual plot, once it moved out of the mystery mode and into the thriller mode, was less engaging.  You kind of knew where it would go and the bad guy wasn't given enough depth to make him interesting.  Still, I definitely kept turning the pages to find out what was going to happen next.