Sunday, December 30, 2018

57. The Gradual by Christopher Priest

This was a dreamlike, slightly disconnected yet ultimately intriguing and pleasurable read to end the year.  I actually had a tough time transitioning out of God Is an Englishman, it was such an absorbing epic and I didn't have any sense of what kind of book I was ready to read next.  So I think it took me a while to give The Gradual my full attention.  My partner found it for a buck at the Oakland Library bookstore (more on that haul).  The beginning of the book is slow and it takes a while to tell you where it is going (and even then you don't know the full journey to the end).  Things got interesting after the first third.  Priest constructs a mystery about the setting itself and once it gets going it really draws you in.

The protagonist is a musician in a desolate industrial city who had grown up under a military dictatorship in constant, but distant war.  He is invited to do a musical tour of the nearby vast archipelago of islands, neutral in the war and inspirational for his own compositions.  The islands are beautiful, but complex and alien. At every landing, they have to give these rods to an agent, who interrogates them, but otherwise life is much freer than home.  However, when he returns, he finds he has lost almost two years of his life.  His wife left him, his apartment was in arrears.  He tries to figure out what to do with his life all the while thinking about the mystery of the islands.

Priest weaves several other interesting narratives, including his brother drafted to the war and now fate unknown, the development of his own music and how it is received.  By the end, the disconnected style is overcome by the complex elegance of the plot and the rich sense of place.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

56. God is an Englishman by R.F. Delderfield

Wow, I don't know how many of these epic, engrossing 672-page romantic histories I have in me.  I have to admit, it was enjoyable for the most part.  I wish I could have read it at a bit more relaxed pace, but its length made me feel pressured to not lose pace.

The story starts out in colonial India, at the end of some battle as mutinies are flaring up. Adam Swann, a commissioned soldier is brought down, but survives and discovers a ruby necklace of great value.  He decides to leave soldiering and return to England to use the rubies to stake some kind of new venture back home.  Upon arriving, he already sees the impact the railway is having on industrializing England.  He decides to take a horse across the land to see what he can learn.  He learns lots about the cotton mills and how England is changing.  He meets and marries a feisty beauty, Henrietta, running away from her avaricious merchant father and he decides to set up a business running freight via coaches between railway depots and cities not fed by the railway. 

Those two storylines, his marriage and family and the development of his business, interweave with in-depth forays in one or the other at certain crisis periods.  You also follow the paths of all his lieutenants and the regions they manage.  These are great opportunities for local mini-adventure vignettes, like the depot manager who catches an escaped lion, or the welshmen who provides the wagons that get the pump to a submerged mine.  They all are defined by their British gumption, common sense and basic decency, despite a range of political and socioeconomic backgrounds.  These passages were all quite entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

The marriage storyline is interesting and while weird does give a lot of time to the female perspective (as well as a second female character, one of his lieutenants with romantic tension).  There are quite long parts that dragged on where they get all introspective about how they learn from each other and go to other levels, etc.

I have to say that overall this book succeeded in taking me out of my world. I started reading it at the beginning of xmas vacation and I finished it on xmas day.  I sort of felt like I had my regular family vacation as well as another vacation in 19th century England, it so absorbed my consciousness.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

55. Great Detective Feats by Leonard R. Gribble

I found this at the street sale on Rachel along with two other really enjoyable old mystery paperbacks (Darkness of Slumber and Map of Mistrust).  It was the least interesting and the least attractive aesthetically.  I don't know what 2/6 means in British currency (and what it's value was relative to the time), but given the cheap printing and the back being only ads for other books, I suspect this was an inexpensive read.  None of the names meant anything to me either.  It is a collection of 5 short detective stories.  I guess Gribble was well known for his Inspect Slade series (at least that's what it vaunts on the inside back cover).

Likewise, as I started reading the first story, I was worried it was going to be a slog to get through.  The premise itself was good, a restauranter in France (sometime in the late 19th century) finds a leg wrapped up in the well in his backyard.  The prose style and the way the story was laid out was very odd. It took me until about halfway through the second story to realize there was no dialogue.  These are basically narrated retellings with some embellishment but all done in the omniscient third person.  I think that all the stories may actually be real.  Once I cottoned to this, I enjoyed the book much more.  The crimes are all quite mundane and the detective work realistic (going through files, sending out letters, canvassing hundreds of people) and it made for some fairly enjoyable and interesting reading.  The morality is very black and white, but not vociferous.  The stories take place in a variety of times and places.  I was pleased to see the last story takes place in Berkeley in the 30's and is about a chemist who was working on an artificial silk when his lab in Walnut Creek blew up.

I think this book is the equivalent of one of those true crime books, but a lot less lurid (at least in the telling, the crimes themselves are quite nasty, though never sexual).  Solidly moral with constant applauding of excellent detective work but ultimately selling because people want to read about the crimes.

There was also this great passage, a little British dig at American law enforcement:
He was what is termed on the western side of the Atlantic a tough guy. Men like him and of his calibre created Chicago's dark history.  As a matter of fact, in features Kennedy was not unlike the celebrated Irish Chicaglo gangster overlord, Spike O'Donnell.  In the metropolis of the Middle West Kennedy would have flourished.  In England he did not flourish--Scotland Yard saw to that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

54. Valérian l'Intégrale volume 2 by Christin and Mézieres

This volume comprises the fifth, sixth and seventh books in the series and here we get more into the episodic visiting of different worlds.  There is so far not a longer narrative through line other than Valérian and Laureline's teasing, platonic banter.  Here they end up on a different world in each book, have to resolve a social/technical problem as well as save themselves.  One thing that is not entirely clear is the tone of these books.  The two chrono agents never seem truly threatened.  They do have highly advanced technology at their fingertips, but sometimes they lose their ship and all their stuff and yet seem to float above the risks and dangers of the people they are trying to rescue.  I am not against it, as it makes the reading a lot more fun.  But I wonder how much of it is an artifact of the style of bandes-desinnées of the period they were created in, the tendency for the french to always go slightly goofy.  We shall see how it evolves.

Le Pays sans Étoile - Here they arrive on a far outpost that has recently got itself established enough that they don't need help from the tempo-spatiel chrono agents.  Valérian and Laureline are just here to say goodbye.  Unfortunately, they also discover that another planet, off its orbit and hurtling towards this solar system, risks to destroy the new settlements.  They go to this barren rock to discover that it has a world inside of it, a world with two city-states, at perpetual war with one another.  One of the city-states is run by decadent men and the women are all slaves and the other is run by decadent women and the men are all slaves.

Bienvenue sur Alflolol - This story takes place back at Technorog, a resource treasure for the vast Terrien galactic empire.  It is here that the fuel and technology that Valérian and Laureline depend on is produced.  On their way in, they discover a lost ship of weird, fun-loving aliens who turn out to be the original inhabitants of Technorog (known to them as Alflolol).  Because the earth empire follows a Prime Directive type of rule, these natives must be allowed to return home and settle where they want.  This causes a massive disruption in Technorog's production capacity and conflict with the leaders there.  This was light-hearted in treatment (and in its resolution), which undermined a bit the power and pain behind the theme.

Les Oiseaux du Maître - Their ship sucked into a planet with a bunch of other trapped ships, they tempo-spatiel agents find themselves in a land where a civiliization of other crash survivors all work to provide food for the master. They are driven by flocks of poisonous birds that make you go crazy if they bite you.  Over the centuries that this has been going on, the people have become fully enslaved to the master.

One interesting commonality between the first and third stories is that in both cases, V and L join a caravan at the beginning and travel across this strange land to the narrative goal.  In the first one, they join a migrant tribe who role is to mine the explosive eggs the two cities use as weapons and a lot of the first part of the book is them on a great route to one of the cities.  In the third book, they fall in amongst the people who strip the ocean of seaweed to add to the extravagant meals of the master.  They too walk along a major trail, joining up with other food providers (farmers, livestock raisers, etc.) who are all heading to the place where the feeding of the master happens.  Not sure if this is anything but a coincidence, but an interesting early pattern to keep an eye out for.

Monday, December 17, 2018

53. Bury your Dead by Louise Penny

I got this one out from the local public library after a recommendation from somebody.  I am generally leery of contemporary mysteries, but this one is set in Quebec and the author lives outside of Montreal, so I had to give it a try.  For some reason, I had it in my list that this was the first book in the Inspector Gamache series and I specifically was looking for it.  As I was reading it, it seemed less and less like a first book (or one with a ton of backstory that takes place late in the protagonist's career).  It turns out that it is like the 5th book in the series.  I am hoping it is representative of it as a whole, though I wished I could have started with something where the plot was not quite so ambitious and wide in scope (this one has a plotline involving a major terrorist attack).

Anyhow, an interesting read.  It is very well put together and the intrigue is imaginative and well-plotted.  Perhaps almost too well-plotted.  You actually get 3 mysteries in one here.  Something terrible happened in the past when one of Inspector Gamache's men gets kidnapped and we follow that flashback storyline.  At the same time (as the reader), Gamache who is recovering in Quebec City from his wounds mental and physical is investigating the murder of a Samuel de Champlain fanatic found murdered in the basement of the English Literature and Historical society.  Finally, Gamache's lieutenant, inspector Beauvoir, who is also recovering is sent back to the small town of Three Pines to re-investigate the murder of a hermit who had a cabin full of priceless antiques (they had caught and convicted a murderer, but Gamache has doubts).  So, yeah, a lot going on.  Honestly, I would have been perfectly fine with only one of these storylines.  I'm not sure why so much has to be packed into this book.  Is that the appetite of today's mystery reader?  Especially considering that in the flashback storyline, the kidnapping is actually part of a plot line that would fit better in a Tom Clancy novel.  Despite the quantity, they were all engaging and well-crafted storylines, though at times the suspense is a little arbitrary (like just tell us what happened).

The physical portrayal of Quebec City was great and reinforced my desire to do a family trip there.  It's a well-written page-turner and I can see why her books have been so succesful.  I would definitely pick up another one if I stumbled across it, though will probably not seek them out.  Not a criticism of the books, but just not quite in my wheelhouse.  I would like to see how she handles Montreal itself one day.

I do have one concern, though.  This is a delicate topic and I may come off sounding extremely nerdy or snobby here.  I had thought that Louise Penny was an anglophone Quebecer, but as I read this book I became less and less sure of it. There is a lot in here about Quebec and french that feels off.  Many of the protagonist's names are french from France, not Quebec.  I have never met anybody named Armand or Émile. Likewise, the food (which is often detailed) seems way more french than Quebecois.  Finally, there is an anglophone character whose french is really bad, but the way it is portrayed is that she says things that francophones understand in a completely ridiculous way like "have a nice strawberry".  It is supposed to be a humourous point about the character, but it just makes no sense.  If somebody speaks bad french, they will simply be not understood.  Nobody is going to mistake have a good night with have a good strawberry ("bonne nuit" vs. "bonne fraise"?!).  They sound completely different. This happens a bunch of times and I'm too lazy to find the actual text.

Going further, the political views of the francophone Quebecers rang oddly false to me.  They seemed to be stuck in the past and coming from an anglophone perspective.  The question of Quebec sovereignty in character's inner thoughts and dialogue is treated as this heavy thing, with this suggestion of menace around the more extreme separatists.  I find that to be a real anglophone view of the situation, informed by our own anxieties and the shit media coverage and propaganda outside of Quebec.  Even in 2010, sovereignty is not a major issue for most Quebecers.  The language is, the culture is and especially anxieties around immigration, but sovereignty for most people is kind of in the past now.  It's also not some heavy big thing.  People will talk about it.  It's not treated like some delicate subject you have to tiptoe around.

After I read the book, I read up on Louise Penny.  She's from Ontario but worked and lived in Quebec for decades.  She currently lives in the Eastern Townships.  It's not clear how good her french is nor how integrated she is in to francophone society here.  She clearly knows her stuff and does a lot of research for her books.  It could be she sees a side of Quebec that I don't see (I am pretty limited to Montreal most of the time), but honestly at times this book felt like cultural tourism.  I don't know if that is a good or bad thing and I suspect that her translated books do well and are well received here (will do a bit of research on that myself).  Quebecers love mysteries, homegrown ones especially.  I was just hoping for someone who really knew Quebec from the heart but wrote in english for my lazy ass and I am not sure I got that here, at least on the portrayal of francophone Quebec.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

52. Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome

This is the second book of the Swallows & Amazons series about little British children on holiday in the country in the period between the two world wars.  I was not so enthusiastic about the first one that I immediately wanted to read the next (it didn't quite grab me as it had a child, though I enjoyed it).  This was such a beautiful copy that I picked it up.

I am really glad I did, because this one did really grab me.  First, I needed something well written and real and honest after the pollution that was State of Fear.  Swallowdale was the perfect antidote.  Second, early on in this book, they crash the Swallow, their little sail boat and it has to go in for repairs.  This means that the bulk of the adventure and exploration takes place on land.  I do like the sailing stuff but the technical language loses me and I get disconnected.  Here, they are following the little river up to a cool, hidden valley and exploring outwards on the moors.  There is a really great map that goes with this one as well.  Finally, we have a real antagonist here, in the form of the Amazon's Great Aunt, who is staying with them and bringing with her a reign of terror of visits and outings in proper dresses and reading poetry and so on.  Nancy and Peggy and even their Uncle Jim have to sneak and plot in order to even get out of the house for some adventure.

With Swallows & Amazons, the first book, I theoretically enjoyed it.  Swallowdale satisfied my love of adventure and exploration in fiction so well that I am back on board and looking forward to finding the third book.  I am also going full-on prosletyzing and will be sending these books to the various children in my life that are the correct age.  It demonstrates to me how powerful the themes of exploration and adventure can be on their own. They don't need tension or character development or arcs or any of that American university creative writing dogma to be entertaining.  Even when you can see the map and know some of the events that are coming, Ransome is so good at capturing the feeling of climbing up over a ridge to see what is on the other side that you still feel excited.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

51. State of Fear by Michael Crichton

State of Shit
Writing this post will be a ceremony of cleansing, to help put this awful book behind me.  State of Fear is the worst book I have read in a long time, quite possibly one of the worst I have ever read.  The problem with bad books is that it is much harder for them to be good bad than a cheezy movie.  There was nothing good about this book, the whole thing was painful to get through.

Let's pretend first that it isn't basically a giant piece of shitty propaganda, an alt-right consNERDative screed.  I will just ignore the pages and pages of "conversations" where a naive liberal who has never had their assumptions challenged is slowly convinced that global warming is a giant scam perpetrated by super-rich environmental groups fronted by Hollywood elite.  These "arguments" literally contain graphs and footnoted references to real scientific journals.  If you flipped it so that it was corporate drones being convinced that global warming is real, it would be just as bad.  It is probably about 1/3 of the book when all added up.  Everytime the characters get on a flight to travel somewhere (and that is often), it's an excuse for another multi-page "dialogue" of badly constructed logic, straw men arguments and cherry-picked facts.  This would completely disrupt any rhythm or excitement the book had generated, it if it had ever actually generated those things.  Nevertheless, let's just cut all that bullshit out and focus on the narrative the remains

It is supposed to be the story of extreme environmentalists being funded by a major non-profit environmental org (who is in turn mostly funded by a rich donor) who are plotting to trigger a series of natural disaster to increase funding for their global warming campaign because they have discovered that the statistics are disproving man-made climate change.  Seriously.  Though that idea actually could be a lot of fun.  Here it is thoroughly confused and uninteresting.  There is a layer of story that takes place for the first quarter of the book, I guess establishing the arbitrary and boring (and unrealistic) characters before you can even tell what this is about.  Other than it just being a structural mess, here is a list of the other flaws in the book.
  • The characters are almost empty.  There is just nothing there besides their job.
  • The characters are unrealistic.  Like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky level of artificial constructs.
  • Nobody is competent.
  • The big cool agent guy who knows everything never will tell anybody anything but for no reason.  They get on a plane.  "Where are we going?"  "I can't tell you.".  Two chapters later, "we are going to Vanatau" "Okay cool, why?"  "I can't tell you." and so on.  It's just for fake suspense but there is no reason for it in the story.
  • The main character is a young lawyer who has never done anything tough.  He gets dragged along to everything for no reason.  These super elite agents who refuse to tell him anything also include him in every plan.
  • Each chapter is headed with a location and a time and all that.  Which is stupid because after the first quarter, the narrative always follows the same characters who are all together doing the same thing. So you have chapter after chapter with the same location on it.
  • The action sucks.
  • Heavy-handed use of italics "Evans glanced over his shoulder.  Sanjong was not behind him."
This book sucks.  It's for stupid smart people, I guess.  Fisher-Price: My First Thriller Book.  In college, for our final Humanities 110 project, one of the options was to write a dialogue with Socrates. My friend's dormmate wrote one where he and Socrates argued.  At the end, he wins the argument and Socrates apologizes and acknowledges that the dormmate was a superior rhetorician.  I kept thinking of that when reading this book.  Any dashed-off pulp book is going to be more entertaining and better put together than State of Fear. I am really glad that I have finished it and never have to think about it again.  Ugh.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

50. Map of Mistrust by Allan MacKinnon

Dr. Cameron, I presume.
I found this one at the same garage sale on Rachel where I discovered Darkness of Slumber.  Map of Mistrust is sort of the British equivalent of Darkness of Slumber, a standard but enjoyable murder mystery in the classic mold.  This time, Anthony Carne, competent young lecturer with wartime espionage experience finds himself finishing up a fishing trip in Scotland when one of the lodgers is found dead on a mountain path.  It looks like an accident, but also may have been foul play.  As he is leaving, he gets a call from his old spy boss who wants him to investigate.  The dead man was the British voice of Nazi propaganda in WWII who was thought to have long fled England.

His first stop is to Doctor Cameron, who discovered the body and thought it wasn't accidental (though the official coroner ruled it so).  What a shock when old Dr. Cameron says it wasn't him who stumbled on the body but his attractive, redhead daughter who was outside gardening and who is also a doctor!  Somehow, because of her youth and beauty, Carne understands why the coroner couldn't have taken her diagnosis seriously.  They get off on the wrong foot, but it is soon patched as she not only demonstrates that she is a capable doctor, but also very competent in everything else, especially spycraft.  She cottons on quite quickly that he is investigating something and he is convinced against his better judgement to let her help him.

This is a pretty entertaining read, though the central mystery itself is not all that intriguing.  There is a lot more adventure and excitement as Carne ends up being suspected himself and has to go on the run.  It has a bit of The 39 Steps feel to it and there is a pretty good chase and hiding sequence in London.  I also appreciated that despite the sexism of the time, Dr. Sheila Cameron is indeed competent and is never used as a threat or risk for the protagonist.

This was the Canadian White Circle Pocket edition from 1950 and there were quite a few typos.  I don't know how printing worked in those days.  Would it have been the same typeset that was used for all editions or did they reset them to be printed locally?

Also, the title comes from a neat little bit of writing when Carne is reading the newspapers and lamenting the state of the post-war world:
Briefly, he scanned the lesser headlines.  Anti-British demonstrations here... Anti-American demonstrations there... Formal protest to the authorities somewhere else... There was a neat little map of the world, variously shaded to illustrate an article on the suggested zoning of the planet's air routes. It might equally have served to illustrate the grouping of incompatible ideologies, of war-time friends who were friends no longer.  Map of Proposed Spheres of Control, they called it, but it was more than that.  It was a map of mistrust, of suspicion, of downright jealousy and fear.  The United States and Britain, he reflected, for all their differences and brotherly abuse, still shone like twin headlights through the international night.  But the slightest knock to either lamp might start a divergence in the beams, a divergence that would grow with every successive jolt.  And heaven knew that jolts were not far to seek...  He sighed and turned to the crossword puzzle.
Indeed!  This is the kind of stuff I like in my British spy thrillers.

This is not the book I read, but I wish my version had that sweet map.  There are a lot of cool lochs and mountains that I would have liked to have referenced.

Monday, December 03, 2018

49. The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth and penultimate book of The Dark Is Rising sequence and so far my favourite.  It still suffers from the arbitrary magic and vagueness of the Dark as antagonist.  However, the bulk of the story is anchored in the real and the setting, always a strong point in this series, is better integrated into the themes and plot points.  This time, Will is sent to his aunt's farm in Wales after a serious bout with hepatitis.  Though still an old one, the little boy that he is is physically quite weakened.  Of course, it also turns out that his aunt's farm is a valley in Wales that rests at the foot of the mountain of the Grey King, the site of the next step and confrontation in the quest to prevent the Dark from rising.

Will meets another lad his age, an albino whose aura he can't read.  The land is pleasant and the people rough-hewn but warm, except for asshole farmer neighbour Caradog Prichard, who has a hate-on for the other neighbours dogs, accusing them of killing his sheep.  As Will explores to fulfill his quest, a conflict with Caradog threatens, its tension mounting with the machinations of the Grey King.  I still don't get why Will spends most of the time being in a weak position, but then can cast quite powerful spells.  And I am never clear what the Dark actually is made up of.  Nevertheless, the story of the neighbour farmer was quite gripping and there are some great countryside wisdom and morals subtly portrayed here.  This was a good one and gives me some momentum for the home stretch of this series.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

48. Freedom by Daniel Suarez

The paperback is an odd shape,
1/2" taller and 1/4" narrower
than a standard paperback
Freedom is the sequel to Daemon, where a techbro turns himself into a decentralized algorithm on the internet and basically takes it over.  Most of the Daemon was about the investigation into his death and seeing the effects of the daemon as it slowly implemented its master plan.  It was mostly a murder mystery with a cool internet concept behind it (Ready Player One but the AI is evil).

In Freedom, we get a much broader scope.  The subtexts of daemon (multinationals being out of control, decentralized vs centralized control over information, old versus new) are pretty much the main substance of Freedom.  There is definitely a story here, but it feels like Suarez main motivation was to share his ideas about how the internet can change the world for good or evil.  I am usually turned off when authors of fiction spend a lot of time explaining, but here he is preaching to the converted and doing it in a pretty entertaining way.  I can imagine some would grow a bit weary of scenes like a Laguna Indian woman (who is a 22nd level tech shaman in the Darknet) explaining the high tech self-sustaining community they are developing on their reservation or the salt of the earth farmer lamenting how he became a slave to agribusiness and the evil of the global supply chain.  I gobbled them up.

And that's what is really fun about this book.  It was written in 2010 and while some of the details already seem obsolete in the age of fakenews, he is nevertheless broadly quite accurate in seeing how the man will use technology to suppress. It's not always totally coherent, but basically the good guys are the people who have signed on to the daemon's Darknet.  They all walk around in glasses with virtual reality HUDs so they can see the Darknet around them.  People and locations who are part of the Darknet have callouts that show their level, their value, etc.  The decentralized production method that helped them develop deadly weapons and extort opponents of the daemon in the first book is now being used to transform America's blighted economy, especially in the rural midwest into self-sufficient community cells.  The bad guys are the corporate and military elite who want to destroy the daemon that has infected their network and eliminate this new culture that is undermining the structure that keeps them in power.

It gets a bit cartoony and the storylines of the various characters are inconsistent.  As my wife pointed out, particularily glaring is the one female character's utter lack of doing anything ever than just being ferried around from place to place, told things and then fulfilling her romantic quest from the first book (with one of the main male protagonists who gets a lot more actual action).  None of the stories of the characters from the first book really get played out fully satisfactorily.  I think it was a deliberate choice, to keep the book small and more digestible so I am not totally critical.  Just wish they had at least included one of the women's stories and made it richer and more interesting.

Fun stuff, though, I am on board.