Saturday, September 22, 2018

22. Ransom for a God by Tony Foster

This was a fortunate find from the weird blanket booksale on Bernard where I found the previous read, Chip Harrison Scores Again.  I have never heard of Tony Foster and though written in 1990, Ransom for a God is a solid adventure novel right out of the classics of the 70s.  It does take place in 1976, so perhaps it was actually written back then.  I am not sure but Foster is worth a read if this book is any indication.

It is a somewhat convoluted story with several characters and their own storylines.  It starts as high espionage with a plot to discredit the Chinese and sow conflict with their Russian allies by stealing a giant solid gold statue of the Buddha from a temple in Bangkok.  Most of the book though, gets down to ground level, following ex-con and Vietnam veteran pilot Mike Carson who is slumming in Bangkok, drinking away his PTSD.  He ends up getting the job of actually flying the statue out after the heist.  There are corrupt Thai officials, subtle Chinese spies, incompetent DEA agents, decadent American bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians and military officers.  As you can see by that last group, this book has a decidedly anti-American spin, very much in the post-Vietnam sentiment.  

As I say, it's a bit convoluted, perhaps even slightly preposterous at times, but it is a lot of fun, the characters are interesting and the action quite well done, never overblown.  Really a solid adventure find.

Ah I see, Tony Foster is Canadian!  Nice, added bonus.  I'll have to check his stuff out some more.

I think this is him, though the writer of this laudatory obit did not do his research on Foster's books.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

21. Nick Harrison Scores Again by Lawrence Block

This was a strange read.  It started with its purchase.  I picked it up from a guy selling books on a blanket in Mile End in a place where people don't usually sell books or anything.  It was weird because he had like 40 books, all paperbacks from the late 80s.  He also didn't have change and seemed more interested in the graphic novel he was standing and reading than in actually selling the books.  From afar, the blanket looked really promising and I did find one or two gems but mainly I got the books because they were in that rare zone of being readable for me but not collectible so I can take them with me and not worry about damaging them.

I like Lawrence Block but don't love him.  He is a solid, engaging storyteller with a very similar cultural perspective as Westlake (with whom he was close friends).  Both share that slight distance from their material but somehow Block's feels slightly farther than Westlake and I don't totally connect with the characters.

The cover has the subtitle "Another Chip Harrison Mystery".  This is false advertising.  There is no mystery.  It is, I discovered, the follow-up to a first Chip Harrison novel.  The conceit of this one is that Chip Harrison is the author, as he was of the first and you learn this early on.  There is a lot of asides and talking to the audience and bald hommages and references to other authors.  It's all a bit meta.  At the same time, very readable and the story flows.  Chip is hanging around in New York City in the 60s, hanging with Bohemians but eventually running out of money.  Through a convoluted path, he ends up with money from a bus ticket that he uses to guide him in his next steps, which is to get on a bus and head to this random town.  He ends up in a small town in the south, living and working at a small brothel at night, helping an elderly preacher in the day and balling his daughter during lunch hour.

There is a lot of sex in the book.  At times, it almost feels that it is supposed to be a sex novel, either for sales or because Block wanted to try it out.

It's enjoyable and it flows, but it's kind of weird in its overall purpose.  I enjoyed being in the world of a young unfettered wanderer in 60s America, but wasn't sure what I was doing there as a reader.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

20. The Secret under my Skin by Janet McNaughton

Another find from the hospital haul, The Secret under my Skin hit upon several of my areas of interest: young adult dystopic fiction pre-Hunger Games written by a woman.  I was not disappointed.  On the contrary, this reinforced my belief that the 80 and 90s (and in this case as late as 2000) produced quite a few interesting works in this genre that are in many ways superior to today's boom of series (I have only read Hunger Games; the rest of this judgement is based on movie trailers so take that for what it's worth).

This book takes place in 2354 long after environmental degradation brought civilization down.  Society is now in a semi-feudal state, governed (and dictated) by an authority called the Commission who uses the fear of technology and environmental dangers to maintain its control.  The heroine is a young girl called Blay who starts out in a work camp where kids are forced to mine ancient dumps to find resources.  We learn that she was orphaned at 2 during the "Technocaust" an event where the Commission and fearful citizens rounded up anybody who was using technology or rational knowledge and put them in concentration camps.  Blay is chosen to be the assistant to the Bio-Indicator, a young person who is especially sensitive to radioactivity or pollution and now plays a ceremonial role in ensuring that places are not toxic.  She is then brought into the household that is training the Bio-Indicator and from there discovers a new world of resistance as well as conflict with the spoiled, frightened Bio-Indicator.

The big difference between this period of YAPA and post Hunger Games is that the earlier books usually finish in a single book or two (the Tripods being the exception).  That is good and bad.  This book is a really great read and the world is revealed at just the right pacing up until the final act, when the narrative need to come to a conclusion quite quickly reveals the big picture as well as making major societal changes in a few pages.  I am glad that it is a single book, but honestly, this could have very easily been turned into a trilogy or even a series*.  It would have allowed much more depth and steadier, more involving pacing.

I can't really fault the author for what was most likely a publishing constraint.  This book is still more nuanced and more moving than The Hunger Games and even Harry Potter.  It doesn't need some excessive and simplistic bad individual, nor does it need histrionic individual rivalries.  The characters are real and complex and the challenges of adolescence and the struggle of living without love and family are movingly and realistically portrayed.  The geography and the local culture are compelling and mysterious (I think this is supposed to be somewhere in a real location in Ontario**) and the conflict between repressive ignorance and democratic knowledge are very relevant today.  This was a really good book and I will be keeping it for my daughter.

*Addendum 1: there is a sequel: The Raintree Rebellion.  Added to the list.
**Addendum:  totally wrong about that, it's actually a place in Newfoundland!

Saturday, September 01, 2018

19. Takeover Bid by Sarah Gainham

This was a decent, respectable novel that disappointed me because it didn't live up to the promise of its more suggestively sordid cover.  It's not totally inaccurate as the basic plot involves a seductive, manipulative woman who sleeps her way into the bed of a powerful business leader.  However, she is not counter-culture at all and ultimately the story is about the business leader and his deteriorating psychology, rather than her otherness destroying the establishment.

I did a bit of reading on Sarah Gainham who had an interesting and succesful career as a journalist in post-war Vienna and then as a novelist with Night Falls on the City being her huge hit.  Her personal life was fairly rock and roll and sounds a lot like the girl in the novel (who loses agency but gains in sympathy as the book goes on).

The story is told from the point of view of the head of the Brussels office of a major American company trying to impose its machinery patents on the European market.  This waif comes in as a junior typist (and the description of her look in the first few pages is amazingly well-written; read them below) and quickly seduces him right in the office.  While he struggles with his guilt, desire and logistical complications (he is happily married), she moves on to the big boss, who is coming to town following rumours of erratic behaviours.  Turns out this once all-powerful leader of men has fallen into a spiral of booze and pills.  He is no match for the seductress.

The industrial politics machinations and the class anxieties around them that follow were quite entertaining for me.  However, the book also veered more and more into bad psychological analysis of the chief and a poorly illustrated conflict between the protagonist's view and that of the other business leaders and doctors on what to do with him.  It's unclear ultimately what is wrong with the chief as the author tries to add meaning to his addictive behaviours, meaning that falls short because we don't really know the character from before and because there is a ton of 60s psycho-babble nonsense.  And the ending is just kind of a cop-out. 

Here are the opening lines of the book:

She was a thin, narrow girl who stuck her feet and legs out at odd angles from her skimpy, washed out, straight dress. This was very much in the style that soon became fashionable and it was, as I only afterwards realized, very much part of her talent that she incorporated this by no mean unimportant part of the Zeitgeist-that is, the appearance of women--before it was quit obvious as a trend.  The thing was to be emaciatedly thin, flat, exiguous in outline, untidy.  In expression vacant, lost and melancholy, like a small girl dressed up in her brother's clothes which she has a little outgrown, making passes at her uncles without knowing-- but very much wanting to find out--what in fact she is doing.

That's good stuff!