Tuesday, October 30, 2018

33. The Salamander by Morris West

Another find from the hospital used book store, The Salamander has the look of the classic 70s bestseller.  It even has a quote from Cosmpolitan on the cover, so I guess they felt it would attract both men and women readers.

It's an odd mix of genres.  It starts out as a detective story and then morphs into a much larger-scale political thriller about halfway through without adding any new characters.  I guess one might say that the biggest character in the story is Italy herself.  Throughout the narrative, all the characters and the protagonist are constantly talking about the history of Italy, the political culture of Italy, the Italian character, how Italians are just so different from everybody else.  This is not an original refrain and I suspect there is some truth to it, but it is really hammered home here and I'm not sure how authentic any of it is.

The story starts with Inspector Matucci of the internal intelligence agency the SID, responding to the death of a very powerful general who was in line to possibly be the next leader of Italy, possibly through extra-legal means.  He finds a clue leading to The Salamander.  The first half of the book is this investigation.  It's fairly cool.  There's lots of rich locations and interesting methodology of a secret police inspector who is relatively morally good.  As the investigation broadens, it becomes less about what actually happened to the general but rather what conspiracy of a fascist takeover is brewing.  We do meet The Salamander and he turns out to be a good guy, working inside the world of power to prevent this coup d'etat.

The Salamander takes Matucci under his wing and the second half of the book concentrates on their relationshipo and Matucci's makeover from disgraced inspector to slick political spy, also playing the game at the highest levels.

It was entertaining and had some nice relationships.  I enjoyed the machinations of the various agencies and bureaucracies as well as the intermingling of society, money and military powers. It was all, I suspect, a bit unrealistic and simple and ultimately lacked a true edge that would have distinguished it from a mainstream bestseller of its time.

Monday, October 29, 2018

32. Valérian - L'Intégrale Volume I by J.C. Mezieres and Pierre Christin

In the past, I would only count a comic book (or bande-dessinée) if I had read the entire series.   Well desperate times call for desperate measures and I am changing that policy to consider an "intégrale" of a series (usually a collection of 3-4 of the books) a book in my 50 books counting.  I believe this policy choice is defensible, as they are written in french with a lot of text and tend to be as much effort and take me as long to read as a short crime novel.  I also tend to avoid french comics and non-fiction and several of these have been sitting on my on-deck shelf for a while.  Over the weekend, I went hard on that shelf, culling out books I wasn't going to read and re-organizing it to take advantage of my current reading energy.  My plan is to alternate fiction with french comics and non-fiction until I have emptied that shelf!

Valérian and Laureline is an all-time classic of the french language bande-dessinée world.  I knew about it for a while but was motivated to read it after the Luc Besson movie came out.  The movie is not as terrible as some would have led you to believe.  It's not great either but had enough of a cool space sci-fi vibe that I wanted to check out the source.  That led to an impassioned 20-minute discourse by the comic book store guy and a recommendation to get the first volume of l'intégrale which is made up of the first 4 books. Interestingly, he recommended that I skip the very first one, which he said was not indicative of the rest of the series.

I have to say that while so far really cool and enjoyable, the series so far hasn't quite lived up to his hype.  It's not quite Thorgal level of connection and emotion for me.  At least not yet, I can see the potential is there.  Even with what I have read, I can also understand why Valérian is so well respected. It is not unlike the original Star Trek. Valérian and Laureline are spatio-temporal agents from the 28th century where almost everybody on earth sits around connected to dream boxes.  This pinnacle of leisure society is thanks to the time-space technology allowing humans to go anywhere anywhen.  The space-time agents are the only people doing anything productive and their main thing is to just make sure nothing goes awry.  The first 3 books are sort of origin stories where you get some insight into what happened to earth since the 20th century.  The 4th book, the Empire of a Thousand Planets, I suspect will be more indicative of the series, where the agents go visit some new civilization and have to deal with a problem there, a lot like Star Trek, but with time involved.

And this is where some of the qualities of this series come in.  This some trippy space shit!  The art starts out in that very traditional slightly goofy style of the 60s and 70s (à la Lucky Luke), but the exaggerated features and floppy hair calm down.  The places and the concepts even in these early albums are really cosmic and imaginative.  They also have a great voyage through the United States being ripped apart by cataclysmic weather effects (Manhattan is drowning, the Rockies exploding in volcanoes).  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian vibe running through the stories.  While the main evil is defeated at the end of each of the stories here, there is also a rebel group left who will be shaking up that society going forward.

Like Star Trek, there is a code of not messing with the local societies.  It doesn't have it's own name but Valerian mentions it twice.  Like Star Trek, he and Laureline don't seem to follow it too closely.  Again, I suspect this will all tighten up and get more complex and interesting as the series evolves.

Good news for us all and especially those of you who don't read french, almost the entire series has been translated into english.  Ask your local comic book store!

 [Link to article on the order of books in the series]

Saturday, October 27, 2018

31. Do Evil in Return by Margaret Millar

I had a bit of a hiccup on my fall 2018 reading resurgence.  Was 18 pages into a nice '70s Eric Ambler paperback when I realized I had already read it.  This threw me off and left me feeling that the other books on my on-deck shelf were not appealling.  I decided to go with a sure thing and pick the last Margaret Millar on the shelf.  Even then, I was doubtful about my ability to keep up the pace.  Until I started reading. It helped that this is a short one, around 120 pages.  More than that, Millar just sucks you right into the uneasy world of post-WWII, Truman-era central west coast America and all its hidden darkness.

The first thing I really like about Evil in Return is the protagonist.  Charlotte Keating is a doctor, a general practitioner, competent, strong and capable of separating her emotions from her work.  She keeps them perhaps a little too separate, as her affair with a married man starts to seem like real love.  The story starts with her meeting a desperate young woman from Oregon who wants an abortion.  She had a fling in a hotel room with a traveling businessman and now her abusive husband wants nothing to do with her.  Keating refuses, but is sympathetic and later goes to track her down at the boarding house where she is staying.

There things gets seedy and complicated and lead of course to murder.  Again, I got caught up in Millar's delicious trap, enjoying the characters, the situation and unsettled unease around everything and trying to figure out who these characters really were.  I was actually almost disappointed until she slapped me upside the head hard with her incredibly tight plotting.  She's just a master.  Again, she was well recognized in her time but seems to have disappeared today.  If you find this one, get it and read it.

Here's a better review with some great covers, especially the back cover of the Dell Key edition with the awesome map and illustrations.

Friday, October 26, 2018

30. The Meandering Corpse - A Shell Scott Novel by Richard S. Prather

This is the first Shell Scott novel I have read, though I have been vaguely aware of the series for a while.  The Meandering Corpse is roughly mid-point in the series so I guess it is pretty indicative.   It starts out with Scott going to a bar to watch a torch singer and scout out some new thugs in town.  We get a brief flashback where we learn that the daughter of LA's current top mob boss had come to his apartment and threatened to claim he raped her unless he took on a job for her.  The job was to take down this new mob that had already killed her father's bodyguard.  Kind of a decent opening and I was ready to get into it.

What I didn't know is that these books are goofy as hell.  There is a lot of editorializing in between the action.  So much that maybe the author should be named Richard S. Blather.  Parts of it were funny but I just didn't really care much about what was going on because it took so much time to get from point a to point b.  Every time Shell Scott does something (or gets ready to do something), we have to follow many paragraphs and even in some cases several pages of verbose, jargon-filled reflection.  This also happens with scenes of dialogue.  If Richard Stark had written this book it would probably be 40 pages long.  A lot of this read like the kind of dialogue that you would get in a rat pack movie, but way more of it.  I can see the appeal of these books in their day to some degree, but everything just took so long!

And the events in the book get fairly wild as well.  Scott is saved from execution by two lions and a bear.  He breaks up a funeral to drag the body out of the chapel because it's potbelly is filled with dynamite.   At a police raid, he is responsible for signalling the go order to start the charge but forgets to press the button on the walkie-talkie and ends up running in alone (the whole lead up to the button-pressing takes multiple pages).  The funeral scene was actually fairly clever and could have been fun if the whole thing hadn't been padded with so much internal monologue.

So glad I read it and the cover is pretty great, but that's probably the end of the road for me and Shell Scott.

Here is a very good overview and appreciation of the series.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

29. Heir Apparent by E.L. Withers

I found this book at the weird Mile End blanket sale.  I can't find any reference to the author online.  It's a decent WWII thriller, made particularly interesting because the protagonist is an old lady.  She is the marquessa of the island of Marabello off the coast of Naples, being used as a base for injured soldiers by the Nazis.

At the beginning of the book, she is basically whiling away the days, most of the time in bed, with one remaining servant and her children back in Rome.  She is stoic but also basically neutral.  The Nazi colonel, with class aspirations, treats her with simpering deference.  Things change when her old friend on the island requests her help to hide a 7-year old girl, an Italian princess the only remaining member of her family murdered by the Nazis and also the grandchild of the Marquessa's childhood friend.

This is a classic WWII thriller with lots of hiding and running and a nice range of evil Nazis.  Some of the bad guys are a bit simplistically written but the narrative delivers some pretty good craziness and evil by the end.  I quite enjoyed it and found myself moved at the end.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

28. Horse Under Water by Len Deighton

I picked this one up mainly for aesthetic and collecting reasons. It is a second printing of the original Penguin paperback with all the hyperbolic promotional text on the back from the period.  I am not against Len Deighton and my mom even has a couple of his original cookbooks, which I delved into once or twice.  He was always just a little too mainstream and pure espionage for my tastes.  So this was a good excuse to give him a try.

I have to say I was quite surprised by how poetic his writing is.  The chapters are short, like 3-5 pages long, each with a vaguely suggestive, sometimes punny title.  There is a lot of wry humour as well. Many of the chapters end on a pithy one-liner.  I found myself quite caught up in the style of it all. It wasn't until about 2/3 of the way through that the narrative revealed itself to be pretty traditional in structure, which is fine.  There is a bit of sound and fury here, signifying nothing.  You come away enjoying yourself and getting a bit of a fictional education on the details of spycraft (there are appendices with details on how to tap phones, real or fictional episodes and characters) but mostly not with any strong feelings.

Here the protagonist spy whose name I already have forgotten is sent to Portugal to search for counterfeit bills in a sunken German U-boat.  This money is going to be used to cheaply support an insurrection against the Spanish government.  Things are not what they seem and a cast of weird expats gather together on the coast and do expat/spying things.

Again, his language is quite creative and effective and you can see the appeal in these books to the British public who longed for exotic vacations abroad and culture.  There is a strong old boy element as well, especially in the relationship between the spy and his superior, Dawlish, who remains at home battling the bureaucracy. There is a backstory about one of the antagonists, who went over to the Nazis in WWII, that is actually quite touching and makes complex and sympathetic the reasons one might betray one's country in a time of war.

A good read.  I will keep my eye open for the earlier books by Deighton.

I'm going to take several photos of the interior pages so you can get a sense of how these books were marketed at the time (1965)

Thursday, October 18, 2018

27. Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald

Another nice little find from the Nanaimo used bookstore, this is a reprint of one of MacDonald's rare forays into sci-fi.  He writes in an afterword that he was pleasantly surprised to find after not having read it for 14 years that it wasn't as bad as he feared and despite some stilted dialogue, he found the story moving forward at a nice pace. I have to agree with his assessment.  I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover this is a pretty cool concept with a nice, advancing story.  I was worried it would be Travis McGee in space, but I think if you didn't know he wrote it, you would have had a hard time identifying the author.

 The story has two threads.  The first is a scientist and a psychologist working together on a major space flight project who also have potential feelings for each other, kept in check by professionalism and the shared belief in making the project the top priority.  The problem is that one of their top people suddenly went crazy, took an iron bar and smashed up the control room, setting them back months and giving fuel to the skeptical military bureaucracy and politicians that fund the project.  There are hints in the background of people just doing senseless things in society in the news and so on, which give it somewhat of a sci-fi feel but also may be just a reflection of reality.

The second thread takes place in a society of humans who spend their entire lives inside a building that they think is the whole of existence.  Once they turn adult, they spend most of their time in dreaming chambers where they can inhabit the minds and bodies of people in three different worlds.  It is not clear why they do this, but they must.  It is the dogma of their society, as is the belief that there is only the structure they live in.  The dreams are fun and they seem to take the most pleasure in taking over dream people and wreaking havoc in their worlds.  One of these people begins to question as he makes his way up to unused upper chambers and discovers a window (there is a suggestion that the population of these people is shrinking).  His discovery leads to other knowledge and ultimately of a very different understanding of the dreaming, that maybe they are actual worlds and not just dreams.

And so both sides struggle against the fear and limited imagination of their superiors while moving forward in a way that will bring them together.  It's a very interesting commentary on human conservatism and a novel way to try and explain our extreme behaviours.  A good read and I will look for his other sci-fi novel, Ballroom of the Skies.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

26. Rapt in Glory by Edwin Silberstang

I can't even remember where I found this book.  I was very hesitant to read it as it seemed like it had never even been opened before, the sides were so firm and straight.  It was published in 1964.  In the end, I reminded myself that despite the physical beauty of these paperbacks, they were ultimately written and produced to be read and so that's what I did.

The story takes place in New York City in 1950 and follows a few different characters around the main story arc leading up to a hold-up of a pharmacy in Brooklyn and the aftermath.  The main characters are a struggling attorney living at home with his bitter wife, his disaffected war hero younger brother, a resentful two-bit bruiser and an up-and-coming detective.  The first three are Italian and very much of their neighbourhood, while the cop is an Irishman.  Ethnicity is big in this book.  The casual racism seems very realistic, though jarring for the modern reader.  It's the younger brother who is the focal point of the story.  He saw serious action and is clearly suffering from it, but it takes a while for the reader to find out the details.  He is the one who plans the robbery.

This is a really solid, well-written book, actually quite great in parts.  People are pretty poor in this book and don't have a lot of options and you really feel it.  The writing style is steady, with lots of attention to detail that never feels superfluous.  Once it got moving, I had a hard time putting it down.  It lost a bit of its steam in the final section, which focuses on a trial and I guessed the final supposed surprise ending.  Still, a really solid moving book and a fantastic portrayal of New York City as it transitioned into the social change of the '60s.

Did a quick search on Edwin Silberstang and turns out he was best known for his books on gambling but most proud of his fiction, which based at least on this book (his first), he should have been.  This is why I keep doing this!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

25. Caravan to Vaccares by Alistair MacLean

I've probably already said this but I avoided MacLean for a long time.  His popularity made me suspicious of his quality and I am disappointed to say that my instincts were correct.  This is the second book of his that I have read and in terms of plotting, characters and structure he is generally a bit too sloppy and simplistic for my tastes.  In Caravan to Vaccares his writing style is downright goofy at times and the behaviour of the male lead so fantastical that there was very little tension or suspense, given the stakes of the situations.  Furthermore, there are just some embarrassingly bald exposition passages.  I know the entire genre is pretty boyish and simplistc but this one reads like it really was intended for British schoolboys from the 19th century, except without the rich language.

It's not un-fun, though, and I will read more of his books if choice is limited.  It's just that compared to writers like Desmond Bagley and Duncan Kyle, he is second-tier, which is depressing that of course he is the most succesful of the genre, sales and popularity wise.  "Why oh why must the sub-elites have such poor taste?!" as a friend of mine once lamented.  Indeed.

Here we start out at a resort in a valley in France along the caravan path of gypsies who end in the Carmargue which I guess was some exotic place that was in vogue at the time, because I had never heard of it before. It does sound really cool.  Maclean does a great job with location, both natural and civilized, I have to give him that. The reader benefits from a pleasant escapism.  The story involves gypsies up to no good and the devil-may-care but morally rigid englishman who is investigating them.  He is called Bowman and is an utter cypher except he is a total badass, to the point that you wonder why he didn't just beat the shit out of all the bad gypsies right from the beginning and force them to reveal their plan.  There is also a lovely young woman on holiday with her friend, who gets mixed up with Bowman's troubles and soon they are working together and he is constantly joking about how they are going to get married.  It's weird.  One really good character is the Duc de Croytor an outsized aristocrat with massive appetite who is ostensibly studying gypsy culture but is clearly involved in the game in some way.  He was actually quite fun, though his actual role in the plot was fairly goofy as well so that the strength of his character felt deflated to me by the end.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

24. Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak

I finally had my fill of men's adventure fiction and felt like a move over into some science fiction.  I picked up this beauty at a difficult to walk to bookstore in Nanaimo while there.  He actually had a quite a decent collection of 80s sci-fi paperbacks, but I only picked up this one.  The guy was also re-organizaing a shelf of VHS and seemed confident they would move.  Interesting.

Also interesting is that in many ways, Donovan's Brain is as much a detective/crime story as it is science fiction.  The premise is very scientific but most of the narrative is about the protagonist going around LA and dealing with a weird cast of characters as he tries to uncover a mystery.  Said protagonist is Patrick Cory an obsessed scientist living in the desert with his neglected, supportive wife while he works on trying to understand the power of the brain.  Because the local doctor is a drunk, Cory gets called when a plane crashes in the forest.  While trying to resuscitate one of the victims, he realizes that while his body is done for, his brain is still living and he takes the opportunity to steal it for his experiments.

He also discovers that the brain he stole is that of W.H. Donovan a famous tycoon.  We don't learn much about Donovan at this stage of the book, though his character becomes very important as the story goes on.  Cory plugs the brain in and starts trying to communicate with it.  Things get interesting.

This is a real page-turner.  The characters and situation is interesting and it's the mystery of who Donovan was as well as the slowly increasing connection between Cory and Donovan's brain that really grabs the reader.  I can't do much analysis on the book without giving away a lot, so I won't (plus I'm lazy), but I do think Donovan's Brain is worthy of such analysis.  There is a lot going on here beyond just the entertaining narrative.  Very cool and fun book.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

23. Assignment-Mara Tirana by Edward S. Aarons

Serious 1960s babe right there,
also this happened in the book
I just realized upon starting to write this post that I have never actually read an Edward S. Aarons book.  They are staples of the manly fiction collecting world and I have come across them many times, including a massive collection at a used bookstore in Winnipeg.  I guess partly because of their ubiquity, I never felt the need to actually read one.  Probably part of me was being a bit dismissive, assuming that they couldn't be all that good given the quantity of output.

Well times are desperate for this paperback book hunter and I found this on a blanket in Mile End or the hospital used book store and picked it up.  It's actually very well written.  It suffers from some of the tropes of the time and genre, particularly the sexual and romantic relationships and the portrayal of women.  The story is grim and mostly in the realm of the realistic (though the commie bosses are portrayed as pretty brutally evil, without any real motivation beyond ideology and crushing the west) and the locations are captivating and evocatively written.  I stuck with it to the end and quite enjoyed it.

In this one, Sam Durell discovers that the woman he loves and had to abandon because of his job, has followed one of his brutal compatriots to Vienna to try and help rescue her new love, an American astronaut who has crash-landed in the mountains behind the iron curtain.  Durell goes to rescue her, against the wishes of his CIA superiors.  There is a lot of hand-wringing about him not following procedure because of love, but we never spend too much time on that.  Furthermore, we get storylines of the other spy as well as the crashed astronaut that are all pretty fun to follow.  There are several interesting side characters, including a Hungarian partisan, a village police chief, a spoiled actor brat younger brother.

I'm very glad to know that these are decent reads.  I won't be collecting them but will keep an eye out for them in my future hunts.