Monday, November 27, 2017

54. Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus

I had to keep going with Thongor.  Partly, it's because of my obsessive completist tendencies (why I tried and failed to adher to a non-trilogy or series policy in the first place) but also because the later Thongors did get much more enjoyable.  I particularly liked the pirate scenes in the last book and this one seemed to be all about pirates.  It's the last Thongor book that Lin Carter wrote and this time the pirate city of Tarakus (which weirdly is right in the middle of Thongor's kingdom and they just let it ride all this time) has aligned itself with another escaped wizard who has harnessed another powerful magical/technological weapon from the eldritch past.  The weapon is a ray that makes everybody murderously insane.

Lots of adventure and super-coincidental reunions as usual.  There is a kick-ass princess in this one, who is a love interest but is constantly demonstrating to the dude how badass she actually is, so that was fun.

I note a significant slowdown from my torrid pace in the second half of this year.  This is entirely due to a guy at my daughter's daycare giving me a free copy of Assassin's Creed: Origins a videogame that almost succeeded in taking over my entire life.  This 50 books is no joke.  Distractions can come from anywhere.  Stay vigilant!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

53. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This was a huge childhood favourite of mine but I couldn't actually remember much about its content or even if I read it myself or if my dad had read it to me.  It's the story of a family on vacation in the lake country somewhere in England.  There are two brothers and two sisters (and a new baby sister who doesn't get to go on the adventures yet), their mum and nurse. The father is somewhere around the world on a ship.

The story is basically of their summer sailing on the lake, in particular a week they spend camping on an island in the lake and the adventures they generate from it.  Really not much happens.  It's really about them working their sail boat, setting up camp, pretending to be pirates, spying on the man on the lone houseboat, meeting some rival pirates their age, navigating the waters and going fishing.  Somehow it is all very absorbing and fantastic.  There is a small subplot of a robbery of the houseboat, but it's not really central to the story. 

I wonder if this book would appeal to children of today.  Kids gets such intense dosages of fantasy both visually and content wise with all the tv shows and books out there, that Swallows and Amazons may just seem to pedestrian.  I think it is an important book to read so I hope that they would still enjoy it.  It teaches so much about independence. The oldest boy is maybe 12 I think.  They sail by themselves and stay camping for several nights.  They do check in back at home to get supplies, but I just can't imagine this kind of independence today.  We stayed at Georgian Bay with my aunt a couple of summers ago and we took some of the kids out in her canoe and it was like the biggest deal. The parents don't let their kids out of their sight.  Really sad.

Another sadder thing was that this book was written in 1929 and many of the plucky kids in this story would probably have been off to use their skills and independence in World War II not so far down the road.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

52. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Got this page turner from meezly who I think got it from a colleague at work.  I knew I was going to devour it quickly because she read it quite quickly and I could see the large type and short paragraphs.

I am warning you now this review will have spoilers.  This book is best read not knowing anything.  So I will tell you straight out that it is a page-turning, enjoyable thriller with a really cool sci-fi premise, though it is ultimately about human relations.  That all being said, it is also very much a mainstream book and so is written in a way that I do not enjoy.  Way too much emoting about everything and constant references to class-conscious material goods (like describing the countertops and type of wine in a kitchen that will all feel so dated in a decade).  Also, the main character has to be kind of wimpy and make not the smartest decisions.  People seem to dig this style, but I can only handle a few of them a year.

So here's the story.  Jason Dessen is a happily married physics professor with a 15-year old son.  Coming back from celebratory drinks with his more successful colleague, he is suddenly accosted by a masked man who takes him to an abandoned warehouse and shoots him up with drugs.  He wakes up in a super fancy lab being applauded by a welcoming committee.   They know his name and treat him with deference and respect, but there is also tons of security and armed guards in the lab.  He escapes and makes his way back to his home, but it's all changed and there is no wife and son.  Really honestly you should stop reading this and just go read the book because the premise is really quite cool.

Actually, I am going to stop there as that should give you enough of an idea as to whether this kind of book is for you or not.  I ended up enjoying it, though with the reservations mentioned above as well as one major logical flaw which I will put down below for the record (again, major spoiler!)

[If he could go to any world from the box, why didn't he just go to a world that already had the quantum technology and explain to them what happened and get them to fix it?]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

51. Memory by Donald E. Westlake

This book set up expectations that I was worried were not going to be fulfilled but then when they weren't, Westlake had taken it into such an unexpected direction that I found profound and though not narratively satisfying, totally enriching.

It starts off right away with a dude in bed with another man's wife and the husband barging in.  The husband swings a chair at the dude and then the dude is in a hospital bed.  Once again, I am glad that I had zero knowledge other than the front cover (which is literally the action that takes place not just in the first page but the second paragraph, so definitely no spoilers).  Somehow the blow has damaged the memory of the protagonist, Paul Cole.  He has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember who he was but also has trouble continuing to remember new things.  We learn from the cop who found him that he was an actor with a touring stage play.  The tour paid his wages and went on without him (the show must go on). The cop has a strong moral position on fidelity and rousts Cole out of town. Cole has barely any money after the hospital bill, can't remember who he was beyond the ID in his wallet and has only some instinct urging him to go to New York, which has the address on his driver's license. He takes a bus as far as he can afford and ends up in some small, poor town called Jeffords.  Here it becomes a question of survival for this guy, who has a few dollars and no memory. 

I will stop at the storyline here, except to say that it begins with a lot of classic elements of Westlake's early works.  It takes place in the early 60s.  There is an expertly depicted small town.  Some menacing characters, including a very low-level loan shark at a tannery and a very nasty police detective.  Because of these elements (well crafted as usual with Westlake, god he is good), I thought we were going in one place.  That place being a crime thriller with the dude's memory as the suspense.  It doesn't go there, but instead explores in a pretty interesting way ideas of identity as well as subtly critiquing the cosmpolitan smugness towards what we know today as flyover states.  It's pretty sad and dark but also so interesting and compelling (and as always written so straightforwardly) that you keep turning the pages. It was copywrite 2010 but I wonder when Westlake actually wrote it.  The theme and sophistication made me think that it was indeed one of his later books.

This isn't the book that Hard Case Crime sells you on the cover and blurb, but it is a pretty damn good book. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

50. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White

Blam, did it.  I am quite happy to have made 50 but not feeling like cheering or resting on my laurels.  The challenge is to keep this up year after year and not flake out and build up a huge debt like I did for the last 4 years.  Also, this was perhaps not the best choice for my 50th book.  I have to admit that I read it almost entirely out of duty and not pleasure.  It was like the toughest part of a marathon.  You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It is ostensibly (at least according to the breathless editors, who seem to dotheth protest too much) the true ending to White's classic The Once and Future King that got partially incorporated into the 4 books series that was actually published but mostly blocked due to wartime shortages and editorial decisions.  It was a decent coda, but most of it was the king as an old man going back to the animal societies he visited as a boy when first starting under Merylyn's tutelage.  Then the animals all argue with Merlyn about various types of statehood and how man compares to other species. If you were looking for a political science debate, this would be a fun one to read.  If you are looking for a conclusion to The Once and Future King, this felt like a lot of repetition.  When it does get to the real narrative ending, it is satisfying but it's only about 30 pages.

I was expecting a story that was really about Merlyn, as he is one of the most interesting characters in the Once and Future King. He is going backwards in time, which would be quite difficult to tell in a book.  I suspect the title was created by the editors and not T.H. White himself for exactly the reason that it would encourage sales.  I lay the blame of my dissatisfaction with this book entirely at the feet of the publishers.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

49. The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee by his wife, Linda

I am a huge Bruce Lee fan.  I would go so far as to say that he is one of my major life influences.  He put me on the path that led me to be the man I am today (for better or for worse).  I first heard about him when I was 8 or 9.  I was part of a crew of little middle-class whiteboy roughnecks running the mean streets of Rockridge in Oakland, California.  We even had a gang name, the Thomas Avenue Terrorists (our symbol was a dagger in a pool of blood), ah, the 70s.  There was a golf course around the block from us and somehow we fell in with this guy who was the caretaker/security guard.  I don't think he lasted very long in the job because he was only around a few weeks (plus we were quite likely the kinds of people he was supposed to be guarding against; we used to wild on that golf course including hiding behind the sand traps and stealing balls as they came on to the green).  Anyhow, one of the times we were hanging out with him behind his bronze sedan, he said "I bet I know somebody you kids are into: Bruce Lee!"  Well, actually I had never heard of him before, but we all pretended like we knew who he was and that we were into him. 

It must have planted a seed because a few years later, after having moved to Vancouver Island, I was a full-on kung fu nerd, trying to suck up as much martial arts books, magazines and videos I could get my hands on.  That was not much at the time.  My friend Mike Tanaka and I used to practice our kung fu kicks on his trampoline (he had much better form than I did) and play all kinds of ninja games.  One of the greatest things ever of my young adolescent life was when the Famous Players theatre at Woodgrove mall had a double bill of Enter the Dragon and The Big Brawl.  This was a mainstream first run classic mall theatre (Arthur was the biggest hit they had and it played for weeks; I still don't understand why that movie was so loved in Nanaimo).  I don't know who was the person responsible for scheduling this double bill, but you did a wonderful thing.  My mom took me and Mike to see it (which also was a wonderful thing).  Mind blown.  I perfected my Bruce Lee growl for hours after that and can still do it quite well today.  Later as a young man I got deep into the Hong Kong movie fandom of the 90s and also did martial arts for pretty much most of my adult life.  I even went to China with one of my schools and visited the Shaolin temple. 

So it was pretty cool to go back and read about Bruce's life from Linda's perspective.  I thought this book was going to be a bit cheesy, but it's really straightforward and seems basically honest.  Linda Lee comes out of a different era and implicit in her love for Bruce was the assumption that she would be the quiet rock who took care of the kids.  She was good at it and their opposite personalities worked well together.  Bruce really seemed to love and depend on her, especially when his fame became so massive that he couldn't even leave the house and couldn't trust that anybody liked him for himself anymore.  She seems like a really solid, intelligent and good person.  You have to feel for her that her husband died tragically just as he was about to launch one of the greatest movies of all time and then loses her son in a film accident nineteen years later.  As they say, it just seems so unfair.  And yes Enter the Dragon is one of the best movies of all time.  Come at me.

Bruce Lee was amazing.  Reading about his life today and he almost seems like a parody of the self-actualizing Hollywood success story.  The truth is that he was insanely gifted, insanely charismatic and insanely motivated.  He called his success years before it happened.  He wrote down things like "I am going to bring Chinese gung fu to America" and "I am going to make x millions of dollars and become the first international asian movie star" years before they happened.  It was also really cool to read about his wild teenage years in Hong Kong.  It reminded me a lot of the opening scenes from Bullet in the Head.  He really was a teenage badass.  He got kicked out of a bunch of high schools and wasn't going to make it into college. Though quite delinquent, even back at that young age he was all about bettering himself and he eventually ended up under the tutelage of Yip Man where he learned Wing Chun.  Because he was born in San Francisco (his dad was a successful opera star and had been touring the U.S.) he had an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.  There, he translated his aggressive teenage self into a super-focused young man, did well enough at a technical high school in Seattle to make it to University of Washington where he met Linda.

Watch and learn:

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

48. The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson

I loved Spider World (though it never really ended properly) and have found Colin Wilson's other works intriguing but sometimes a bit too philosophical.  I suspected that of this book but this cover is absolutely irresistible.  I picked it up at Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver, but I can't remember at which store now that it has become a mini and much deserved empire out there.

The Mind Parasites is written as a non-fiction fiction (there must be a word for this).  It is made up long excerpts from a scientist's journal, with some other excerpts and footnotes added here and there to fill out points or bring an added perspective.  In effect, because it is mostly one long excerpt by Professor Gilbert Austin, it becomes basically a story with Austin as its narrator.  He has made a fantastic discovery on an archeological dig in Turkey, a massive structure built under the earth that is evidence of civilizations long before previously thought.  It is explicitly Lovecraftian and the professor posits that Lovecraft's fiction was actually recountings of true visions he was having.  However, it's all a feint, because in his exploration of these ruins, he discovers something else inside his own mind: faint hints of some parasitical species.  He further discovers that these species have been in humanity's mind for the last 200 years and worse are responsible for our inability to evolve past stupid, warring behaviours.

It's kind of a pulp action book where most of the exciting action, at least in the first half, takes place in Austin's mind as he explores deeper while trying not to alert the parasites to his awareness of them.  He recruits other like-minded scientists and the war begins.  It gets pretty ambitious and crazy and is preposterous and a lot of fun.  It's very appealing to think of all the shit going down today and the stupidity and greed of the elites in the world and how it all could be attributable to a parasite that is feeding off our life energy but keeps us stunted enough that we won't discover their existence.  The only thing that I didn't really jibe with was the idea that somehow up until the end of the 18th century, our great thinkers were unfettered and positive and then somehow everything got shitty because we realized there was no God.  That is the parallel that Wilson makes.  He seems really down on 19th century western culture, but I don't know enough about that history to really be critical. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

47. Corentyne Thunder by Edgar Mittelholzer

Picked this up at a Polish Church bazaar.  It's literature!  I'm very impressed with myself.

Corentyne Thunder was written in 1938, Mittelholzer's first book but published after he had somewhat established himself as a Caribbean writer.  It takes place in British Guiana and is the story of a very poor farmer and his two daughters.  They are literally dirt-poor, having only one set of cloths, living in a mud hut and earning money by selling milk from their cows.  The father, Ramgolall, is a coolie of East Indian descent who came over first as an indentured servant, until he bought himself out and was able to establish a small bit of land and some cows.  Despite their very tough existence, they are basically happy.  Interestingly, his daughter from a previous marriage ended up marrying the wealthy, educated cow baron who had been wooing her when she was young and pretty and now her children are being raised educated and comfortable.  So there is an incredible range of class and education in their small world in colonial Guiana.  Race is added somewhat to the mix with black and white characters, but they are mostly on the fringe.

The story itself has an overall narrative arc, but really the enjoyment in this book is learning about their daily lives, the interaction between them and their wealthier relatives and the society in general in Guiana in this period.  I love this kind of stuff.  Written very directly with no unnecessary tension or drama, the text envelopes you in its world.  Sad stuff happens, but it is all very benevolent, compared to what you might think about most colonial writing.  Mittelholzer himself was not a happy man, suffering because he was of mixed black and white race and I do not think anyone would consider his work an apology for colonialism.  It is my own bias of knowing people from the South Caribbean of Indian descent who generally seem quite happy with their lot in life. That is a similar vibe I got from this book, that while there was great inequality, it didn't seem to impact the day-to-day happiness of the people and it felt that there was opportunity for education and the possibility of a family lineage bettering itself.  Again, it's not written as if everything was hunky-dory.  Their lives are portrayed as quite exhausting and physically uncomfortable and there are small injustices and bad behaviours by those in power.  In general, though, the characters happiness is not a function of their station in life and the interaction between the races and class levels has that relaxed Caribbean vibe that makes for a very pleasant read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

46. Thongor at the End of Time by Lin Carter

So this now is the fourth Thongor book I've read and the last of the set I found at Chainon.  I've now read 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the 6 in total, not counting Young Thongor that came out in 2012 .  The series had been a bit of a slog for me but I am pleased to say that Thongor Against the Gods was actually quite a lot of fun.  There was barely any exposition of past events this time and a much tighter storyline and cast of characters. 

Thongor is now king, married to beautiful Sumia with a strapping son named Thar.  One of the magicians we thought he had killed from Thongor and the City of Magicians had of course survived and was now secretly plotting to get his revenge. At the beginning of the book, Thongor is killed quite suddenly and soon after the queen secludes herself from all her loyalists and sets up this fat, decadent merchant to be in power.  Of course the magician is behind it all and we get two cool storylines: Thongor in the land of the dead and his son and trusted lieutenant on the run with a bunch of pirates.  I particularily enjoyed the pirate storyline.  It was the kind of fantasy setting, that while not original at all, was rich on colourful characters and maritime camarederie.  The return to the city of pirates was a great moment, with the captain striding through the streets of revellers to his favourite tavern. 

I realized as I was reading this that it wasn't just the cliched fantasy tropes that were distancing me from really getting deep into the narrative.  It's also that Carter uses so many adjectives!  I realize that it requires quite a lot of parsing down for my mind to grasp the actual narrative meaning of his sentences and that tires me out and makes my thoughts wander.  Here is a prime example:
Over all the thronged and crowded streets with their jostling, drunken, quarrelsome horde, over all the smokey inns and ale houses, above the narrow roofs and peaked gables, brooded the dark citadel that crowned the crest of the cliffs and thrust squat towers against the storm-dark skies where few stars flashed.
I literally had to re-read this sentence three times before I realized it was trying to tell me that there was a dark citadel brooding over the pirate town.  I appreciate the colourfulness of the descriptions, but he goes way too far.  I also learned that Carter is a very skilled writer and that this style choice is deliberate.  At the end of this book, there is a short essay where he explains the historical sources that inspired Thongor and the world of Lemuria and it is extremely well-written, clear and direct, but not simplistic.

I'm glad I made it this far and while reading the last book I was telling myself I would be done after this one, but I think I will now keep my eye open for the last in the series Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.