Thursday, February 28, 2019

17. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold is the one-shot follow-up to the First Law trilogy that I quite enjoyed.  Like the first volume in that series, my brother-in-law gave me this one for xmas.  It is a phat phantasy of the new, grim, modern mold, very epic but also quite raunchy, violent and cynical. 

I won't go too far into the plot, as that task is best left to other more nerd-focused websites.  Suffice it to say that this story takes place on Styria, an island of competing city states. At the beginning of the book,  The book begins with Monza Murcatto captain general of a mercenary army and her brother Benna, paying a visit to the Grand Duke Orso for whom they have come close to defeating most of the other cities in Styria and made him the king of the island.  I really feel like I should leave it there.  If you are a fan of the other books or at all interested, just stop reading here and wait until you get the book and just read it.

It does happen at the very first few pages, so it isn't totally a spoiler, but the Grand Duke, worried about Monza's efficacy and popularity, betrays her and her brother.  The latter is killed and she is almost killed.  Both are thrown from the high tower to certain death, but she miraculously survives, though badly damaged and begins her quest for revenge.

There is a lot of good stuff in Best Served Cold.  The structure is very clever and satisfying.  There were 7 people in the room when she and her brother were betrayed, and she vows to kill all 7 of them.  She puts together a motley band of compatriots, each of which is quite fun and entertaining on their own.  Each chapter takes place in a different city with a single target for the revenge.  So as the book goes on, you learn a bit more about Monza's back story, the politics, history and geography of Styria (the design of the book really helps where you get a bit more of the map on each chapter intro page).

The guy at Dark Carnival told my brother-in-law that this one was better than the First Law trilogy.  I really enjoyed Best Served Cold, but still preffered the trilogy.  Abercrombie is really great at characters and ironic narratives associated with their traits.  You get a lot of those here, but I find they are more satisfying when they are drawn out.  Also, the backstory in the trilogy is subtler and more complex, with a lot of info missing that keeps things mysterious. Here, it is made clear by the end who the big forces are and the conflict is fairly binary, which is less interesting.  A lot of that is a function of the form of a single book, so I am not really complaining.  In many ways, the tightness of the setting and plot may make this a favourite for other readers.  This one is straight-up funnier too, especially with the dialogue of certain characters. It's quite grim and brutal, almost too much by the end, but redeems itself with very clever plotting.  Just a lot of fun.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

16. Route of the Red Gold by Dan J. Marlowe

I picked this up in the Friends of the Oakland Library score last xmas (a haul which continues to give).  I have mixed feelings about Dan J. Marlowe.  He can be incredibly good, almost Richard Stark/Peter Rabe levels of hard efficiency.  Then other times he goes astray and the reader gets bogged down in silly era-bound romantics or excessive details.  Route of the Red Gold is mostly the former.  It's a solid espionage adventure with a great locale and a nice mix of characters.  The story moves forward nicely and it has some cool bits.  The parts that do veer towards Marlowe's indulgent side tend to either be short or actually effective, such as a really cool close look at safecracking.

The story is about Marine captain Roy Weston who gets called by the CIA to investigate a possible commie banker on St. Croix while he is overseeing a large training/research operation there.  They picked Weston because they are down on manpower and coming from a Yale background, he has the social chops to mix it up socially with the colonial elites on the island.  He is also a kick ass marine with tons of specialization in spy stuff, so all in all a pretty good fit.  At first there is a lot of detail into the logistics and administration he has to oversee in his Marine officer dayjob and this bogs down a bit (and feels like military-porn which was maybe the intent).  The story picks up quickly, though, as Weston befriends the initial suspect, a hard-drinking shipping agent.  Things get more complicated when he meets an attractive young Vassar grad staying with her wealthy dyspeptic uncle and alchoholic aunt.  They stay on a way too locked down plantation.

It's quite fun and the ending is surprisingly cold (the way it should be, but not excessively in your face about it).  I also found the protagonist to be more likable than usual in that you really sympathized with his workload (managing companies of marines on elite trainings by the day, then boozing and sexing it up all night while trying to spy) and the stresses it brought him.  Everything that happens in the book does so in lovely weather and the kind of activities one would do in lovely weather like swimming and fishing and sitting on open verandas drinking.  A good book to read in February.

Friday, February 22, 2019

15. Basketball a Love Story by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, Dan Klores

This was a very nice xmas gift from my basketball fan buddy (a smart guy though with some questionable life choices such as being a Utah Jazz fan).  This is like reading candy for me.  It's an oral history of basketball.  There have been several really good oral history articles on specific events, such as the big brawl in Detroit, and it has become a standard form in recent years.  They are very easy to read and quite enjoyable.  This is an entire book of that.

I have really grown to love basketball and to some this title might seem a bit fanciful.  It really rang true to me.  It begins and ends with people just talking about how basketball took a hold of them at a young age and just never let go, all the reasons they love it and how it makes them feel.  My route took a little longer (I played in high school but didn't really feel it; it wasn't until college in the States when I was at a party and some dudes invited me to play late night hoops and the whole "fun" part of it revealed itself to me and then playground ball in the Bay Area, Portland and New York where just so much shit went down) but at the age of 50 I am still playing every week and still desperately and pathetically trying to improve my game. 

So I was hooked by the book, but it really gets much more interesting and impactful.  I knew that racism played a big role in the early days of the NBA but when you read about it from the people involved and here the details of what they went through, it's really upsetting.  Most of those dudes are still alive today and they went through some fucked up shit.  America likes to gloss that over, so I have to use again the word important about this book simply in that it reminds us directly how fucking bad it was.  This is probably the still most infamous incident, though you don't hear about it enough, but Celtics fans broke into Bill Russel's home, vandalized it and shit on his bed.  This is the possibly the best player in the history of the game, all class, who was the reason Boston dominated.  And that was the nadir of the crap he had to endure.  You read this book and it makes you crazy to see this way of thinking coming back to the mainstream, but you also understand it wasn't that far back in time. 

It also goes into the history of the women's game, of which I was quite ignorant.  They too suffered discriminatory nonsense.  Basketball in general for women has improved, as have sports, but the WNBA is still treated with little respect and you still see mainstream journalists and online shitbags talking about their game with a lack of respect.  Women do better to play professionally overseas, which is a gigantic dis to America.  I want to be a WNBA fan (partly to suck my daughter in) but none of the teams are in a city I can attach myself to.  Maybe a college team?

Finally, they go into the gradual entrance of international players to the NBA.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this part the most.  I actually got a bit teary-eyed reading the recollection of Šarūnas Marčiulionis, the Lithuanian bulldog on the Warriors back in the day.  That guy was fucking awesome.  And I learned something and changed my attitude.  I too shared the common prejudice that European players were softer.  What they talk about in this book is how they were softer in the sense that their game focused more on ball movement and team spacing and they did not go hard in the paint.  On the other hand, many of them came from extremely tough environments even from war-torn countries.  And the coaching culture in Europe is way harsher, so they would spend hours in unheated gyms just shooting the same shot over and over again, their coaches would scream at them.  So there are different kinds of toughness.  What they didn't have is the kind of intense individual toughness that you get playing in the street in the United States, but it doesn't necessarily make them less tough.  Still, I do remember taking advantage of much taller euros who would not come into the paint and didn't box out.  That's all changed today.  Everybody is good. I got eurostepped on badly last summer by this Chinese dude in Richmond who not only didn't speak english, he spoke a dialect of Chinese that most of the other Chinese dudes in the gym didn't speak so well.  He looked really country.  But he could ball.

Great book.  Now I have to go work on my footwork.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

14. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Wow, this book kind of blew me away.  I suspected it would be well written and interesting, because I had already read and enjoyed Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse and it certainly started off on competent familiar ground.  A medical intern, Hugh Densmore, is driving from LA to his family's home in Phoenix for the wedding of his niece.  He himself is tight on money (using the family car) but his family is well to do and he was clearly raised educated and with class.  However, there is an edge to everything, a kind of nervousness that I didn't fully consciously register.  I thought it was bourgeois anxiety and then confimed that it was when he stops to pick up a girl hitching a few miles outside of town.  He knows it's a mistake and almost doesn't stop but a sense of responsibility (she's in the middle of nowhere and it is the desert) causes him to pull over at the last minute.  She's super young and lies about visiting an aunt in Phoenix and he vows to get rid of her at the bus station of the next town.

His nervousness made more sense to me and I thought I was in a very similar story to Nicholas Monsarrat's Something to Hide (which has almost the exact same setup; just in England).  I was actually a little disappointed, as I thought I knew where we were going, another exploration of bourgeois white male guilt as he can't shake this teen girl who spells doom to his reputation and class standing.  I was quite wrong about that as things get really interesting both in the story and in the perception of the reader.  I will leave it at that here and say that it is a well-crafted and well-written novel with a rich and convincing portrayal of Phoenix in the 60s as well as an important (hate to use that word) and very relevant reveal of the nastiness at the heart of America.  It's crazy to me that this book doesn't show up more in college curricula or referenced where other important books about 20th century America get mentioned.  I guess it did get chosen as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which is the version I read, so that is something.


Though honestly this book is way better when you have no idea going in.  I am glad I didn't even read any of the blurbs at the back, which had enough of a hint that I would have been looking.

Densmore is African-American.  This is very, very subtly implied once he makes it to Phoenix but becomes explicit when the girl turns up dead, quite likely after having had an illegal abortion.  He is also from an upper class black family, with his father being a succesful doctor, his daughters all sent to good universities.  His race becomes more and more of a factor in the story until by the end, it is (realistically) the biggest issue.  It never feels like a polemic, but it reminds you how powerful and deep racism is in American culture.  It is also fascinating as well to see it portrayed from the perspective of an upper class African-American man, though equally fascinating to parse how accurate/acceptable that is from a white author.  There is lots to unpack here and after finishing this blog I am going to see if I can hunt down any smarter than me people who might have interesting things to say.  Walter Mosely writes an afterword which is okay but doesn't go into it very deeply, beyond sharing his father's own experience of moving to LA in this time. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

13. Dragoman by Eric Williams

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books in Berkeley, based purely on the cover and trade dress alone.  I read a snippet of the blurb and saw it took place in Communist Eastern Europe and thought it might be promising.  What's neat is that there is a stamp on the inside (see the photo below) for the Hotel Perge, which is in Atalya, Turkey, not too far from where all the action in this book takes place.
It's an interesting book.  Based on the short preface paragraph, the author and his wife seemed to have been one of the few western people allowed to drive freely around Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary at the height of Soviet oppression in the mid-50s.  That's basically the set up here, with Roger and Kate Starte driving in their Land-Rover at first in Romania (Rumania as it is spelled in the book) and then into Bulgaria.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because I was assuming they were spies, but nothing kept developing.  They just acted like plucky and semi-clueless British tourists the world around.  It turns out, that's what they are!  The excitement comes when they run into a pro-Communist British archaeologist who was invited to Rumania to work on a book proving that Romanians were of Slavic descent.  When he got there, he saw the concentration camps and the brutality of the existence of men building a canal and realized that he had been wrong.  Now he was being held prisoner.  They decide to help smuggle him out.
It's all very competently written, though for some reason a bit light.  The consequences are very real, but they don't feel heavy.  It's hard to say if it is the failure of the author to deliver the real fear or if is a success and he is portraying the ignorance of the privileged westerners.  It feels like an escape story tacked on to a well done travelogue.  Oh yes, and with some simplistic individual vs. collective freedom philosophizing.
It is interesting to read about the region during that period.  It sounds geographically quite beautiful (and makes sense that it is becoming a tourist destination these days).  It is also a reminder of living in a truly oppressive system.  While the Communist bogeyman of the cold war was in many ways overblown, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a near-totalitarian state.  Furthermore, that was not that far in the past.  Today, we have a common perspective on Russia that seems to have forgotten a lot of that, but you see how their understanding of propaganda and coercion has given Putin's Russia a strategic advantage that outweighs their actual military and economic power.  This book was a good reminder of the history behind that advantage.  Fucking scary stuff having military outposts on every road; police, secret service and informers in every neighbourhood constantly watching and reporting on each other and any newcomers.
Eric Williams was an RAF pilot and a POW in WWII and wrote another book about his actual escape attempts called The Wooden Horse.  I shall add that to the list.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

12. Shall we Tell the President? by Jeffrey Archer

Not hair-raising, nor audacious, nor shocking
My friend and co-founder of the MBU gave this to me that he found in the anarchist brewpub and library place near his place.  They have an interesting paperback shelf and he thought I would appreciate this one (and another that will come later), though didn't necessarily expect me to read it. He also had read about the author having a fairly fetid personal history.  I needed something easy in these February doldrums so jumped right on it.

I did not have high expectations.  In some ways, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  It was relatively low-key in the politics (centrist for the time, which is a bit to the left of today's mainstream U.S. politics) compared to nonsense like State of Fear and basically just wanted to tell its story.  On the other hand, it is really generic and honestly not very thrilling at all.  It's an alternate future, where Ted Kennedy becomes president after Carter.  A young FBI agent (who actually hopes to return to academics) takes the call and gets wrapped up in a conspiracy to assassinate the president.  There is a lot of mild American politics/Kennedy assassination fan theory that must have helped make this book successful (as it seems based on the cover).  The conspiracy is pretty lame, nobody does anything cool and the characters are all kind of insipid and dull.  I am going to look up Jeffrey Archer's past now and I hope that is more interesting than what he wrote here.

I wonder if I would have liked it better had it this lovely earlier cover:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

11. Chanur's Venture by C.J. Cherryh

I feel quite bad about the way I treated this book.  The top of the front cover ripped off a couple of days in.  I found it and the next book together at Moe's and I suspect the previous owner had read them both together as they are the same publisher and edition.  Although the pages were hard to keep open and the interiors quite fresh.
The story here is almost a direct continuation from The Pride of Chanur.  Captain Pyanfar is back with her crew trying to work as normally as before the whole flair-up with the Kid when once again the human Tully is dumped in her lap.  It's hard to tell what is going on but the stakes are higher as it appears the humans are sending a war fleet.
I found this book a bit hard to get through.  It really isn't the book's fault, though.  The situation is complex and the various species are probably the closest to truly different than I have ever read in a sci-fi book.  The situation is stressful and the captain responds to it in a very realistic way.  These believable elements manifest themselves in a way, however, that distanced me from the story.  The various species do not understand each other well and in several cases, not at all.  It makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on.  Part of this is purposeful as Pyanfar is also in the dark about a lot of the big political machinations going on around her.  But that level of intrigued coupled with difficulty of understanding what characters are saying (and them not understanding each other), I wasn't really clear or connected with what was going on.
The basic action is clear enough to follow and there is a clear objective, to protect the human and keep the ship alive, so the pages do turn. It's the back story and the politics which are driving the action that I am not clear about.
This book is also psychologically realistic, but this too turned me off.  These adventurous space situations where the stakes are real (such as the status of your family, your life, the lives of your crew and loved ones, etc.) would actually be extremely stressful and mostly very unpleasant.  You get that feeling in this book.  The thing is, those are mostly feelings I am trying to avoid when I read science fiction.
This really is only half the book, basically split in two to sell more copies I suspect.  It ends just as things get going.  I'll crank through the last one, but I suspect that while I'll enjoy the plight of the ship, I'll be unsatisfied with the reveal of the stellar space politics.