Wednesday, November 28, 2018

47. Whore by Nelly Arcan

I have been reading so much that my on-deck shelf is actually starting to need to get refilled!  I have gone through and organized all my various book search lists and may even now purchase some new books!  In the meantime, I also started going through my wife's collection, which is quite interesting.  She has many female genre authors that I don't know so there is a lot of potential there.  For now, I jumped on Whore because I remembered when Nelly Arcand died it was quite a sensation here in Quebec.  It is also a far departure from British YA fantasy, which I need right now.  I do feel a major shame in reading this book, to the point that I kept it hidden at work.  Not because of the title, but because I am reading the english translation.  It's really not that long and is a true Montreal and Quebec book so I should have buckled down and read the original version.  In the end, I am glad I did not because I never would have finished it.  There is a lot of repetition in the language and endless sentences (seriously, each section is 1-5 pages long and is a single run on sentence).

It is ostensibly the semi-fictional story of a young woman from rural Quebec and a very Catholic upbringing who moves to Montreal to study while working as a prostitute.  It's really more like a long, poetic screed about sex and being a woman and family all from the mind of a very damaged person, but damaged in a weirdly rational way once you get stuck in to her mindset.

I have mixed, complex feelings about this book.  On the one hand, it feels like a ton of self-generated, pretentious pain.  For the first part of the book, I felt a lot like Terry and Dean at the beginning of FUBAR when they are watching the director's deeply personal short film.  I have learned now that it is thanks to my privilege as a white male, but I have trouble sympathizing and even caring about the main character in this book whose major issue was that her dad was no longer sexually attracted to her mother when she was a child.  Everything is extreme.  All women are either sexual daughters minutes away from turning old and becoming sexless, bloated mothers.  All men are cocks just wanting to come all over everything all the time.  There is some truth to this worldview and her insanity is richly complex and revealing, but it is also wildly reductivist and feels angry for no reason I can really put my finger on.  She comes off as one of the hot chicks in high school that we are supposed to feel sorry for because she is attractive and put her on the same level of dysfunction as children who come from abusive backgrounds.  Also, deep down, though this book was scandalous and shocking in its use of raw taboos, the morality underlying the shock is deeply conventional and judeo-christian.  The fundamental notion of this book is that there is something broken about being a sex worker. 

On the other hand, it does hold a certain savage light to modern gender relations and makes one think.  It's also quite funny in parts. Men who come see her in the day are always just coming from or going to chair meetings.  I am not quite capturing it as well as her language but she mocks everything important in our bourgeois world and I enjoyed that.

So not my style and I don't really buy the justification for the mania, but an interesting, thought-provoking book that moves forward quite aggressively in a way I enjoyed.  And I should add that while I say I didn't buy the justification, I cannot deny that whatever the source of her worldview, it did seem to be authentic.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

46. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third book of the 5-part well-regarded Dark Is Rising Sequence, a fantasy story in modern England where a family of children get involved in the war between the Dark and the Light.  I have to start this post with a complaint.  For some reason, it is extremely difficult to figure out the order of these books.  None of the versions I have found ever clearly show which books is which in the series.  It's maddening.  Just put a frickin' number somewhere!  Because of this, I have owned The Grey King for over a year now and never would have picked it up in the first place had I realized it wasn't the next one in the series.  I am sure I am just old and the kids that read this stuff have no problem figuring it out.

The last book had a really cool weather sequence, but I struggled to get into it.  I tried this time to really focus.  It's hard when the characters all have names like Will and Bill and Simon and Jane and because some characters are themselves in the modern world but also some older magical being, they may have several names, and different people use different names with them.  Furthermore, Cooper has this habit of having characters speak or appear in rooms where it hadn't been clearly established in the beginning that they were in the scene.  So again, I struggled with staying focused.

There are some real narrative issues as well, that I think contributed to my lack of interest.  First of all, there is no clear protagonist nor perspective.  The two brothers and sister, who were the heroes of the first book, join together on holiday with Will, who was the hero of the second book. Nobody gets central billing and we flit from character to character without any real structure.  More damning, the children really have zero agency and the reader has no real idea of what is going on.  We just wait for the old Lords of Light to tell us that something is going to happen but not say what and then we get to watch it happen.  It feels very passive, what we call deprotaganization in the tabletop RPG world. It's a bad thing.

There is some cool traditions of the Cornish town and the way they are woven into the overall narrative is quite clever.  I am hoping the flaws here may be most pronounced in the middle book.  I am reluctant to continue to read this series, but will plow forward.  I am still debating whether to jump into the next book right away or take a little break.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

45. Something to Hide by Nicholas Monsarrat

This is a very short book, 124 pages almost all of which are tense and unpleasant.  Jack Carter stops at the beginning of the book to pick up a desperate looking girl on the side of the road.  She is desperate and very pregnant and browbeats him into taking her into his home.  This is 1960s England and Carter is a petit bourgeois clerk at a small town hall, with a nice house by the river where he likes to go fishing.  Though he is in a rural place with some privacy, the neighbours do watch and having a girl in his home would cause social problems that could lead to pressure at work and so on.  He digs himself deeper with lies as the girl proves stubborn and utterly irresponsible.  This is more a book of tension and social pressure rather than outright violence, though it indeed goes down a pretty extreme path.  It reminded me of one of Simenon's Romans Durs with the Highsmith exploration of guilt and Millar's deceptive plotting.  Definitely enjoyable for a day's reading.  I would love to find the movie someday.

44. Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Now that's a paperback!
Other than John Christopher's lesser known adult novels, I have found the animal fantasy sub-genre the hardest to track down.  It's weird because it is not that obscure of a sub-genre and even has some all-time classics (Watership Down) and kids hits (the Warriors series).  I've looked for Colin Dann in used bookshops from coast to coast for a decade now and found nothing.  I was very excited to stumble upon Tailchaser's Song at this weird used bookstore on Mont-Royal east here in Montreal (it's just so barebones, with the english paperbacks being in the basement; I can't tell if the stock has ever changed).  Tad Williams is a succesful author in the wider fantasy genre, though this is one of the books he is known for as well.  It wasn't on my list and was the cover that attracted me to it.  It's a good find and definitely falls pretty close to the kind of animal fantasy books I enjoy.

There are many elements in animal fantasy that appeal to me.  The main one is that sense journey and escape in a world that is actually so close to you.  When the animals live entirely in their own world, which becomes in effect its own fantasy setting, I find it somewhat indistinguishable from a non-animal fantasy story.  That is not entirely accurate as even in those kinds of books, the animals behaviours and relation to their environment play a major role in the story and setting (such as The Duncton Wood series).  Still, I prefer it when it is real animals in the real world with humans off to one side while they go and explore the mysteries and threats of that world.

Tailchaser's Song definitely falls into that category.  The protagonist (and hero), Tailchaser is somewhat wild, but still returns to a box on a human porch where he gets fed.  In the nearby wood, there are wild cats that he hangs out with. In particular, he bonds closely with a female cat, Hushpad and when she and her family all disappear he decides to find and rescue her.  This coincides with rumours of strange goings-on farther afield.  Folk (which is how the cats refer to the themselves) from distant communities found slaughtered and other disappearances.  Tailchaser wonders if his friend's dissapearance is connected with that and decides to follow the older tougher cats to Firsthome, where the queen of the cats resides.  Thus starts his adventure.

The locations and the journeying are really top notch.  There is a great map (though so small that I had to photograph it and zoom in with my phone) in the black and white hand drawn fantasy map tradition.  The mythology, culture and society of the cats is rich and interesting, especially the origin story of man (an overly prideful cat who tries to usurp power gets his ass kicked by one of the Firstborn, is stretched and rendered hairless and forced to serve the Folk to the end of time).  Things get really crazy.  Thoroughly enjoyable. It wouldn't be totally unfair to call it a Lord of the Rings with cats, or perhaps just compare it to any classic quest novel (there ends up being a cool party of mismatched characters who each bring something to the table).  There is enough going on here to take it beyond such a simple critique.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

43. Darkness of Slumber by Rosemary Kutak

I stumbled on this book at a garage sale on Rachel while returning one of my daughter's friends home from hanging out. I think she was a bit curious as to why I had dragged the bike and trailer on to the sidewalk to get a quick look at the books on the table.  I was quite surprised to find this and two other really old mysteries.  This Pocket Book was the nicest looking one, though I picked up all three as the price was reasonable.

It was written in 1944 and I was curious as to the tone and sophistication.  One often has the impression that culture from the past is often naive or softer than modern work.  I am once again glad to be found wrong on that count.  The human relations and behaviours are complex and just as nasty in this book as in any you find today.  The mores are very different, with assumed gender roles and some straight out racism that I found quite off-putting.  It was nothing direct and only occured in a single line, but a word used in passing in the narrative to describe an African-American servant.  Black people are almost invisible except the very few times they appear to answer a door.  That would have been bad enough, but to have the author refer to that servant using what a profoundly offensive and hateful term really kind of slaps you in the face with how fucked up American society is (not that we in Canada are all that much better).  This kind of thinking was in my parents lifetime, so you see in today's shitstorm of conservative resistance to change in the US, that racism is deeply-rooted.  Sorry, I got sidetracked there but you can't just ignore racism, even in artifacts from the past where they supposedly didn't know any better.  My main point was though it is almost 60 years old and pretty mainstream, this book is very readable today for fans of the mystery genre.

The plot itself is quite complex and multi-layered.  It revolves around a wealthy family, their loved daughter, Eve, who has been in an institution for the last ten years in a state of permanent apoplexy (there was a technical term that I forgot; she is basically a vegetable).  As the back story is slowly unravelled from the perspective of three different characters, you learn that she was perfectly happy and nobody knows why she suddenly went catatonic.  Her husband was a lawyer, an ex-DA who had been disgraced in a failed reform campaign right around the time of her collapse.  There are many more layers to the onion and these start to get unravelled when the doctors discover a new treatment that appears to be bringing Eve back.

I found the ending and the actually revelation to be a bit less intense and dark then the lead-up but the bulk of this book was really great.  Rosemary Kutak is added to my list.

Here is a great passage:
Halsey's office had the old-fashioned proportions of the anteroom, but book-lined walls, a heavy carpet, and curtains at the tall windows gave it more solidity.  Halsey himself looked like the sort of man who brought bellboys and put head waiters on the qui vive.  Not, Marc thought, because he tried to create an impression.  He had just been born that way, to expensive schools and clubs and importance.  His appearance suggested tennis and squash courts, easy masculine companionship over a high-ball and a clever, hard-driving mind.  He would, Marc concluded, be a good man to have for a friend, and a formidable adversary to meet in court. 
I'm always down for some easy masculine companionship over a high-ball!

Monday, November 19, 2018

42. Replay by Ken Grimwood

I had never heard of this book before and have since learned that it is considered a classic and deservedly so.  It is thanks to my wife that I did discover it.  She did some research on Dark Matter (which she also passed on to me) and discovered people saying it owed a big debt to Replay  It's also a huge favourite in Japan and probably inspired the manga upon which the Tom Cruise vehicle Tomorrow Never Dies is based.

The story starts with Jeff Winston dying of a heart attack at the age of 43.  He is a producer at a local radio station, unhappy in his marriage and stuck in his career and life.  After dying, he wakes up to find himself in his old college dorm room.  More than that, he is actually is his 18-year old self and it is 1963.  He still has the conscious and memories of his 43-year old self and as you can well imagine, struggles to adapt to this new old situation.  I have to admit, reading this part made me feel a bit panicky.  While the idea of starting over is intriguing, I would just fucking hate to sit through all those classes and lectures again.  Also, trying to act your age would really hard.

One of the things that makes Replay so enjoyable is that as you read it, you can also fantasize about what you would do and how you would deal.  I am not going to go into any more details about the narrative here, as the fun is in finding out what happens.  Ultimately, though this was classified as fantasy, Replay is what I usually disparagingly call literary fiction.  Here, I will not disparage because this is just a really good novel, well thought out, entertaining and quite moving.  It's about love and what we do with our lives and while it has a lot of darkness it is ultimately quite hopeful and inspiring.  A great read.  Nice find, Meezly!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

41. The Philosopher's Stone by Colin Wilson

I was hesitant about picking this up, but the cover sucked me in.  I feared it was going to be a book with too much philosophical rambling.  My premonitions turned out to be correct.  Wilson even says as much in the intro, where he admits that the weak storyline is just a flimsy excuse for him to enlighten the world with his thoughts on perception and the power of the mind.  I am not going to say that this is a bad book.  I will say that it is definitely not my kind of book.

The story basically follows the life and scientific/intellectual journey of the protagonist, who develops an interest at a young age for deep studies of esoteric subjects. He gets mentored by a master in this field, who dies and leaves him half his estate, allowing him to devote his life to study.  At some point, he puts a tiny shard of special medal into his forehead that allows him to focus his mind.  He starts gaining psychic abilities and this allows him to explore and learn even more.  He soon discovers that there are some other being in existence who don't want to be found out. This leads him eventually to discover the history of Mu, the elder gods and Cthulu himself.  There is a fear they will destroy us but then when he discovers their true history, he realizes humans with his mind power could work with them, both species evolving together.  The end.

That's the story, except it takes up abou 40 of the 250 odd pages.  The rest is him rambling on about who really was Shakespeare, how are brains are under-powered and why everybody else is caught up in negative cycles and he isn't and on and on.  It's really a lot of goofy pseudo-science, some of which is kind of creative, but most which is just sort of thrown at the wall to see what sticks.  The ending where we finally learn the true history of man and our relation to the elder gods (and their history and ultimate downfall) is quite trippy and imaginative.  I would have enjoyed that part more had I not spent all week slogging through the rest of the wanking. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

40. Red Ketchup l'Intégrale Volume 1

I enjoyed volume 2 of Red Ketchup (books 4-6) so much and in doing so realized that it had been quite a long time since I had read the previous volumes.  Furthermore, I wasn't even sure that I had read them all.  Fortunately, the local library had the first intégrale and so I took it out and spent the weekend reading it, to my renewed pleasure.

For reference's sake, the first 3 books here are not actually the first appearance of Red Ketchup.  There is a summary of his origin story but it's only four pages.  He first shows up in the pages of Michel Risque when it was serialized in Croc magazine (kind of a Mad magazine from Quebec, though I am probably not doing it justice).  He is a secondary character whose side story takes over a bit from the main Michel Risque storyline (these Michel Risque's are also really good and you should hunt them down as well).  I guess Red Ketchup was so popular that he had to be killed off and then given his own books.  There is a nice summary to be found here.

In the first story, La Vie en Rouge, Red Ketchup gets brought into the ancient society of Templars, who are working behind the scenes to get their conservative populist leader elected.  According to their mythology, Ketchup is the modern incarnation of the knight templar who saved their society from siege (in the tapestry and legend, he has the same white skin, red hair and eyes as our hero).  There is also an internal power struggle and Ketchup with his trademark manic destructiveness is the catalyst that makes everything exploded.  The underlying satire of American politics and conspiracy is strong and funny here.

Because he has caused so much damage, his FBI boss this time sends Red Ketchup to Antarctica to guard a research base there in the second book Kamarade Ultra.  Here he becomes obsessed with what he believes to be a penguin spy (and massacres an entire penguin colony with a machine gun) which leads him to the Soviet base, which he of course attacks.  Two great recurring characters are introduced here for the first time:  Olga Dynamo, Soviet super spy and Docteur Künt, Nazi mad doctor.  This latter is really my favourite, one of the better humourous portrayals of the evil Nazi doctor in hiding.  He lives with his wife Natasha and there is always a hilarious introductory scene with him returning to whatever domestic situation he is and talking to her before the reveal that she is a blow-up sex doll.  Just the movement of his hands cracks me up as well.  I shouldn't sleep on Olga either whose sexual "tension" with Ketchup is just dying for consummation.  Will we ever get it?

He shows up as the main antagonist in the third book Red Ketchup contre Red Ketchup where he creates a clone army of Red Ketchups.  His plan, financed by a bunch of other Nazis in hiding is to use them to sow chaos and then move in to the anarchic aftermath as super troops to establish the Fourth Reich.  It's all really good stuff.

Dr. Künt at home

Sunday, November 11, 2018

39. Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

Ross Thomas has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the better thriller/espionage/crime writers of the second half of the twenthieth century, though that reputation is probably better held among fans of the genre than the broader book-reading public.  The Porkchoppers is one of my favourite books.  Yet once again, I am somewhat underwhelmed by one of his books, especially the ones that are part of a series with a regular cast of protagonists.

Cast a Yellow Shadow is a McCorkle and Padillo adventure. They are two cold war era men who don't really want to do what they do but have to because they are so good at it.  McCorkle is the narrator and ostensibly the less engaged of the two (and the less skilled and experienced, though he always handles himself well).  In this book, Padillo turns up unconscious after a knife fight on the Baltimore docks.  He had presumably died in the last book whose events took place two years earlier.  McCorkle gets a call from some of his contacts in the DC African-American criminal establishment, specifically one bookie and gangster Hardman (pronounced Hard-Man).  McCorkle is happy to see his partner alive, but his pleasure is short-lived as they discover that McCorkle's wife has been kidnapped. The ransom:  Padillo must do a job for these kidnappers.

The kidnappers are agents from a ficitonal south African country beween Rhodesia and South Africa.  They are from the white minority government who wants to gain independence from Britain while not relinquishing their power to the black majority (this book was written in 1967).  Their plan is to get Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister who is visiting America and make it seem like it was done by an American black radical group.  They believe this will turn world opinion in their favour.  The Prime Minister himself is behind the conspiracy as he has stomach cancer and only a few months to live anyways.  They are white supremacist fanatics who are fairly realistically portrayed despite the loopiness of their plan.

It's kind of a cool set up and the cast of characters is interesting, especially the black gangsters who help McCorkle and Padillo with their counterplay.  The problem is that the tone is all a bit too glib and everything feels slightly superficial. The premise was also a bit weak, as the bad guys though violent and desperate are basically amateurs compared to McCorkle and Padillo and completely out of their home territory.  Finally, there was a lack of emotional payoff in the end.

It is a beautiful paperback that I found in in Vancouver in one of those great free book boxes that are popping up all over and I feel like I need to keep it for archival purposes even though it's not one of my favourite reads. 

Thursday, November 08, 2018

38. The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator is the fourth Trollope I have read and likewise picked it up simply because I stumbled upon a paperback copy that whose condition I wouldn't have to worry about. Once again, I became quite quickly enveloped in Trollope's detailed prose and engrossing settings.  Though called The American Senator, the story begins and is ultimately founded on the town of Dillsborough.  We follow several members of the gentry as well as several who want to become or were once close to the gentry.  It starts off with a bewilderingly complex pre-history of the lord and manor hall of the county that Dillsborough is in, but we soon settle down to Lord Morton, a diplomat who has returned to his family seat where he never grew up, his insanely snobby grandmother and his unknown cousin Reginald (whose mother was from Montreal and thus hated by Lord Morton's grandmother).  The Senator in question is a guest of Lord Morton and goes around interrogating everybody and then criticizing England in a way that tends to put people off.  Sir Reginald is a loner and quite content to read books and wander around the family land smoking his pipe.  He also secretly is in love with Mary Masters the angelic daughter of the ex-family lawyer to the Mortons (the third generation of lawyers to them who was unceremoniously fired by the previously mentioned grandmother).  As I say, complex.

Two other important storylines are the laying down of poisoned herring in an fox-hunting wood during a lawsuit between a poor farmer and the neighbouring Lord Rufford (readers will know this is the stuff I really love) and the pursuit of said Lord Rufford by Arabella Trefoil.  This latter is ostensibly engaged to Lord Morton but is a career husband-hunter.  Much of the plot is how she juggles between pursuing Lord Rufford while being engaged to Lord Morton.

Finally we have the senator himself.  He is a guest of Lord Morton initially.  His whole deal is to learn about British institutions and then diss them.  He is often correct in his theoretical positions but almost deliberately blunt and ignorant of the customs he is violating.  He comes off at first as a bit of a caricature of the ignorant and headstrong American, but as you read on, you sense more and more that Trollope is using him as a mouthpiece to expose some of the absurdities of english law at the time.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, but had some reservations.  I found that the subtext here was more conservative than past Trollope books I read.  He lampoons the aristocracy but also seems to subtly argue for its ongoing existence.  My understanding was that Trollope was quite progressive for his time, but I felt a bit of a lament against change here.  None of that reduced my pleasure in the reading and I may be offbase.  However, the romance here was a bit simplistic and also hinged on for me an unbelievable lack of communication.  It dragged the tension on unnecessarily long which I found manipulative and in contrast to the deft way he goes beyond that kind of narrative trickery in Barchester Towers.  That being said, the final conclusion of the romance had a slight wrinkle that went some way to make it more interesting than it promised to be during its unfolding.

Monday, November 05, 2018

37. The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh

I picked up this very nice hardover in Nanaimo.  I think it's a first edtion, but don't know how to tell for sure [editor's note: it's not.  It's a book club edition, story of my life].  I quite enjoyed her book Cyteen, enough that I wanted to try out her more popular Chanur series. It took me a while to find the first one and I am glad I didn't give up the search.

The Pride of Chanur demonstrates Cherryh's strong handling of emotional interactions and complex political and commercial intrigue.  Unlike Cyteen, this one takes place in a really far flung universe with several alien species, some of them so alien that they can't even really understand each other (though they trade).  The protagonist is Pyanjar Chanur, the female Hani captain of the merchant ship The Pride of Chanur.  The Hani (actually hani as none of the species are capitalized here, I guess like the way we use the word humans) are lion-like creatures, bipedal with claws, manes and expressive ears.  Only the females venture out in space, as the men are too volatile and remain back at their home planet protecting their holdings from each other and their own sons who come back and try to take power.

The book begins with the Pride docked at Meetpoint, a trading station, when a strange fugitive creature runs aboard their ship.  It takes a while for the reader to realize it is a human and we learn that it escaped from the kif, a nasty, thieving species that all the others hate and fear.  It sounds a bit simplistic from my description but in the book it quite works.  These are really unlikable creatures.  Pyanjar cannot in her conscience return the human once she realizes it is sentient (though they cannot communicate at first) but by keeping it, she risk stirring up major inter-species conflict.  And that's what happens.

A lot of this book is a really cool space chase, with the Pride at a major disadvantage.  It is Pyanjar's experience and character that is put to the test in such overwhelming odds and we the readers are right there cheering for her and her crew (and the human dragged along).  There is lots of cool space combat and tense strategy and trickery as well.  All very enjoyable stuff for me.

There are 5 books in the series, which I think make up two overall narratives.  I will definitely keep my eye out for the second one.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

36. Red Ketchup Intégrale Volume 2

This is a collection of books 4, 5 and 6 of the Red Ketchup series.  The first three books are some of my all-time favourite comics, a beautiful combination of Hergè-like art and Wonder Warthog style anarchy and chaos.  Red Ketchup is an unkillable psychotic FBI agent, existing solely on handfuls of pharmaceuticals, driven by an 80's American distilled Rambo fascism.  He is also not bright at all and ends up achieving his mission through sheer destruction and the wild coincidences and machinations of the characters swirling around him. His boss at the FBI is constantly trying to take him out of circulation which leads to him causing greater destruction.  It's all a hilarious critique of American exceptionalism and the fantasy of violent victory over bad guys that dominates American comics.  Réal Godbout and Pierre Fournier are highly recognized in the BD field for this and their other great series Michel Risque (where Red Ketchup first appeared as a side character).  The books are also physically beautiful published by La Pasteque, such that I made an exception to my usually going to the library and actually started buying them.  They are translated into english and you should get them.

I sat on this Intégrale for quite a while because I wanted to savour it.  Ironically, when I did finally start reading this one, I got bogged down and abandoned it.  Book 4 Red Ketchup s'est échappé!  (Red Ketchup Got Away!) is actually very talky and starts out with tons of dialogue.  Ketchup who has been sent up to space by his bosses decides he has finally had enough.  He returns to earth (ignoring the burning up as he goes through the atmosphere), resigns in a huff and moves to LA to open up his own private detective agency.  This one really lacks the chaos of the preceding three volumes and I found myself worried that Godbout and Fournier had lost their way as perhaps there is only so much you can do with the concept.  Particularly frustrating is that Ketchup is constantly constrained throughout the book while surrounded by the kind of sleazeballs whom he usually destroys.  Likewise, while much of this takes place in the Hollywood film milieu, the satire is applied rather lightly.  There are the characteristically funny touches along the way, especially in the advertising for American products you can see in the background.

The second volume, Le couteau aztèque (The Aztec Knife), gets interesting again, though this time it is a trippy time travel adventure.  Red Ketchup's sister and brujo Juan Two-Tree chase Red through history (and he chases himself through his own abusive past) as he inserts himself into various conqueror's and completely rewrites the past.

The third book, L'oiseau aux sept surfaces (The Seven-Surfaced Bird) brings Red Ketchup fully back to form.  I burst out loud laughing several times so much that my daughter kept asking me what was so funny.  The story here is an hommage to manga and kaiju, as Red Ketchup is sent by his bosses on a false investigation of the disappearing turkey population ("if the turkey disappears, what will happen to democracy!?") to get him out of the way.  After a hilarious investigation in supermarkets, Turkey farms, processing plants and finally a country fair where he slaps a turkey (this is what cracked me up first), Ketchup goes to Japan where it turns out his old enemy Docteur Künt is developing a gigantism gene. Chaos ensues.  This one was fucking awesome.

Now I have 3 more volumes left. The intégrale hasn't come out yet and I am debating whether to get them individually or just wait.  Either way, I am going to savour again.

I mean look at that.

Friday, November 02, 2018

35. The Moonbeams by R. Vernon Beste

I quite like the sombre colours and purple edges of this paperback.  It was in very good condition when I got it, perhaps only read once by the previous owner.  Two days of reading by me has left it in a much more "used" state.  I was pretty careful but I guess just the age of the paper and glue means that any movement creates lines and little degradations.

I thought it was an American crime novel when I picked it up, but it's actually a British WWII spy novel, specifically about agents working the ground in rural occupied France near the end of the war, allying with the resistance and communists.  The protagonist, Maltby, is cynical and bitter, but also kind of lost.  The book begins with him back in London after a debilitating ulcer forced him out of the France where he had worked with a small team of 5 other spies, blowing up industrial sites and spying on the Nazis.  Although he could have had his "ticket" to take the rest of the war off, his own anxiety about who he is allows him to be convinced to return.  His handlers learned that one of his crew was a double agent, working with the gestapo and was getting ready to blow up the entire extended network.  They send Maltsby back to find out which one was the traitor and also to blow up some crucial and irreplaceable machinery (because it was manufactured in Britain before the war) in a ball-bearing factory.

This is really more of a war book than an espionage book, though technically it's all part of espionage.  Most of the narrative takes place in France in this one region where Maltsby has been operating.  I found the detail of the way they managed themselves and planned their actions to be really interesting.  I don't know how realistic it is (there seemed to be quite a few englishmen who could succesfully pass as working class or peasant frenchmen, but perhaps to the Germans such a disguise would be more effective).  It was also near the end of the war and German forces were weakened, distracted and low on supplies.  There is also some really interesting social exploration, as Maltsby gets to know each of his fellow spies in a new way now that he suspects them of betrayal.  In particular, he discovers that one them is homosexual and he is disgusted but doesn't want to be, as his own innate prejudice clashes with his theoretical liberal values.

Though I am always a sucker for the happy ending, given the darkness and anxiety that makes up most of the book, I found the way this one concluded a bit pat.  Likewise, I guessed the traitor quite early on and found Maltsby's mistake somewhat difficult to believe. These are minor complaints about what was otherwise a solid and engaging story set in a well-portrayed and complex milieu.  Basically a really good resistance story.

Love those purple edges!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

34. Without a Trace by Background GmBH

I can't even remember where I found this book now, possibly in a box of books on the sidewalk.  It's a guide to police detection techniques written in 1977 by a far-left radical group in Switzerland. The version I have is a reprint by Partisan Press in Seattle 3 years later.  I was interested in it mainly for the time period and some insight into policing methods that would be relevant to the genre of books I tend to read.  I had been putting off reading it for some time along with the few other non-fiction books on my on-deck shelf but with my current spurt of reading energy decided finally to take it on.

At first it was really quite laborious.  I really struggle reading non-fiction. On top of it, the intro is dripping with the vocabulary of late 20th century intellectual left dogma.  I consider my politics to be fairly left-leaning (what we would call "progressive" today) and even quite radical in some areas.  But god do I balk at the nerdy rigidity of this particular form of thinking where everybody is a comrade and the bourgeoisie are this evil force.  It is probably the biggest failure of the left (and most ironic), its insistence on verbal conformity and taking itself so seriously, an issue we still see with us today in the internet sphere of leftist politics, though the language has varied.  Anyhow, I digress (and probably have already labelled myself as some kind of traitorious middle-roader).  My point is that I was having a hard time with the lack of narrative and feeling annoyed by the rhetoric.

As I progressed through the book, however, I began to enjoy it more and more.  The bulk of it is straightforward and well-written.  It is a broad survey of the various techniques that police forces use to investigate crimes.  The word they use the most is "trace" but I think they meant "clue".  They explain how detectives can find clues in voice recordings, typewriters, handwriting, explosion and arson scenes, guns and bullet wounds, fibres and materials.  It's a fascinating look at the state of forensic analysis and tools at this time period.  Much of the techniques are pretty outdated today, though probably form the foundation of many current techniques.  It is amazing the detailed work the cops go through and how difficult it is for "criminals" (a bourgeois label filled with bias) to neutralize the evidence.  There is an afterword where the writers mockingly explain what they went through to ensure that they could not be identified by this booklet (the original one), buying paper in small batches from several producers, destroying all the identifiable parts of the offset printing press that made it and so on.

And it is at this point by the end that this book got really entertaining.  They editorialize much more and there is some hilarious stuff.  Here is a paragraph from a section on ordering helpful material directly from book publishers and dealers.

Many or most of these works are written by and for the police, military, and intelligence communities, which has both positive and negative aspects.  On the one hand, frequently the practical and theoretical expertise of the authors cannot be questioned, despite the political despicableness of the presentation.  On the other hand, because many of the books are written for the ignoramuses who staff these government agencies, they are frequently boring and unenlightening for the intelligent reader.

That immediately made me think of the narcs and DEA agents pissing in their boots while on stake out in the Freak Brothers comics.  The bibliography at the end is gold.  There are several books that I need to add to my list that I discovered here, including Operation Ogro by Julen Agirre about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Spain and Franco's right-hand man and The Final Score by Emmet Grogan.

It's also a very revealing look at the mentality of the time and how much more freedom (at least of thought and expression)we have achieved since that time in the West.  Or perhaps how much more information we have access to and can share because of the internet.  Also a warning in these darkening times that extreme repression is always lurking.

As I read the book, it basically fell apart at the spine.  I was planning on recycling it but think I may now get it repaired and keep it on the shelf.