Friday, June 28, 2019

41. The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker

Ah summer vacation, so much time to read.  I can't remember why this was on my list now (I really need to start noting where my recommendations come from) and was happy to find it at a used for a reasonable price. I was also ready to take a deep dive into an absorbing 600-page epic.

Unfortunately, this book didn't really deliver.  I was never attracted to Clive Barker, mainly because I am not a horror fan but also because the Hellraiser movies always seemed a bit simplistic and watered down for me, mall horror for the trendoids.  Horror books from the 80s also often seemed slightly pornographic where the story was just a delivery vehicle for the titillation of sex and violence.  I was however, like many of my generation, a huge Stephen King fan.  He delivered on the characters and situations and often the actual horror seemed secondary to the story.  I was hoping to have a similar experience here.

The story starts out promisingly with a middle-aged loser guy, Roland Jaffe, stuck in a job in the dead letter office in Omaha Nebraska.  His dick boss forces him to go through all the lost mail and pull out anything of value.  At first, he is resistant but since he had been fired from so many jobs, he does what he is told.  After a while, though, he starts to discover a hidden communication, a world of people grasping for some other world.  By being in the center of the postal world, he is able to glean through scraps of people with hints of it that there is some other power out there.  He even starts to accrue some of this power to himself and when his corrupt boss, stupid but cunning, begins to suspect something, he kills him, burns the building down and starts on a journey to find this Art, as he calls it.

A lot happens in the beginning part of the book, so much that it felt rushed. Jaffe ends up a powerful near-spirit in battle with his nemesis, both trapped in the caverns at the bottom of a small town in Simi Valley.  Here is where most of the rest of the book takes place.  Unfortunately, the storyline keeps going, with more characters and more foundation being laid for the ultimate battle.  Normally, I would welcome a continuing storyline, but it becomes hard to tell what the story is and who are the main players.  Characters that seem central to the mythology disappear and others that have no real background suddenly become prominent.  The revelation of the background cosmology also feels sort of arbitrary and never grabbed me.  It's shame because the portrayal of the town is excellent and he really captures that cheap pseudo-Christian bourgeois morality of the 80s.  Nothing solid is made of it and by the end I was just sort of reading to get through it. Finally, the use of the word cunt felt excessive and arbitrary (or just put there to be titillating; what 16-year old girl refers to her own "cunt"?)

 I am not sure why this book is so loved that it deserved a big reprint.  It's not badly written and there were some freaky ideas and cool moments, but as a whole it just didn't hold together and I certainly wasn't satisfied.  My wife tells me she liked Weaveworld a lot better, so maybe I'll give that a try but so far my opinion on Clive Barker remains skeptical.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

40. Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

I am specifically on the hunt for The Moving Toyshop by the same author, as recommended by Kenneth Hite, but found this one in an Amsterdam used bookshop as a decent proxy.  It turns out that the detective is the same and that this story takes place ten years later than the Moving Toyshop (without any spoilers thankfully, just a passing reference from a tertiary character).

Loves Lies Bleeding starts off very British and very promising for me.  It takes place at a second-rate public school where the headmaster and headmistress of the affiliated girls school are discussing the distressed state of one of the latter's students.  Already, the language is really rich, dry and quite funny.  It felt like a slightly older and more verbose version of Michael Gilbert.  The masters are a motley lot, described with a cynical but affectionate regard by the headmaster.  The next day the girl disappears and soon after that, two masters are found dead, murdered by a .38.  Fortunately, the headmaster's old acquaintance, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford and amateur detective had previously been invited to deliver the end of year speech.  He works with the headmaster and the local constabulary to unravel the mystery.  Along the way, we get a very British and entertaining cast of characters, a comprehensive and fulfilling portrayal of the school and environs and an exciting hunt through the forest and a final car chase.  I enjoyed everything thoroughly except the mystery itself, which was a bit too convoluted for my limited attention span.  The last twenty or thirty pages went into excruciating detail first about the logic of Fen's deduction process and then a narrative about what actually happened, at which point, I didn't really care anymore, especially as we barely got to know the culprits before they were revealed.  For real mystery fans, I think this would have been all pretty good stuff.  As it was, the overall writing (though perhaps a bit excessive on the obscure vocabulary and adverbs) and characterization of people and place were very much what I look for in this kind of book, so I am extremely glad to have Edmund Crispin added to my list and my search for the Moving Toyshop will continue in earnest.

Monday, June 24, 2019

39. Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I had been meaning to read this book for a long time and finally found a used paperback copy while in Amsterdam at this odd coffee shop that had piles of books on the sides of a staircase for sale or trade.

Old Man's War was a big hit and put Scalzi on the sci-fi map so I won't go into too much detail about it.  Briefly, it's the future where earth is plodding along after a few wars, but more or less the same.  However, out in space, humans are constantly waging war with other races and colonizing planets they can win or keep.  The recruitment plan for the Colonial Defence Force is pretty unique.  When a human on earth reaches 75, they can choose to sign up where somehow they are made into space soldiers.  What actually happens to the recruits is kept secret and none of them ever return to earth.

The first part of the novel is the story of one of these recruits, widower John Perry, and part of the fun is learning what happens to him after he signs up.  The second part is him learning about the universe and all the various battles going on (also quite fun).  While there is no single storyline, there is a romantic narrative that I won't reveal that was also quite satisfying and emotionally fulfilling.

This book is heavily influenced/inspired by Starship Troopers (which I really need to read).  I question a bit its position on war and colonialism.  Though there is some interesting soul-searching on the why of what these soldiers are doing, it is all ultimately hand-waived away by the excuse that all the other races are violently colonizing planets as well.  It's a questionable thesis, given when this book was written in 2005 as America ramped up its foreign involvement in the wake of 9/11.  Despite this, it's not a simplistic or jingoistic book, just feels a bit too embedded in the American exceptionalism that defined this period.*  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, this book is really fun reading.  It moves along zippily and there are some great aliens (all of whom get fragged) and excellent battle scenes with unique tactics.  I could imagine this was well read among actual troops.  I'll be keeping an eye out for his other books and the two sequels to this one.

*Doing some internet reading, I see this issue has been heavily discussed.  I found this essay to be a nice encapsulation of the debates and an excellent, more balanced and nuanced analysis of the book itself.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

38. The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert

Another random find from the library sale.  Really an odd book.  I can't tell if it is because it was translated from German or if this is the way it was intended.  It is oddly straightforward, almost simplistically told.  There is also no tension or conflict.  It is just the story of a young boy, Christoph, who sneaks out of East Germany in the '50s and makes his way to America where he starts a new life.  As a baby, an arriving American G.I., Larry, found him while searching a cabin and snuck him food which helped him survive.  That same G.I. ended up becoming friends with his adopted mother, the schoolteacher who had been hiding him and he promises to make him his adopted son when the boy is old enough to leave.

This is basically what happens.  we learn about the families he meets going through Germany, the other children on the boat to America, his time with a family in Chicago and eventually his new life on a farm in Central California.  He is an appreciative and open-minded boy and the reader gets to share his perspective on his journey and the world around him.  He misses his home and is surprised by the wealth and culture in America, but also loves the freedom and the independent, hard-working spirit of the people.  I don't know, I lapped it up.  It was just a really nice, positive story with pleasant descriptions of taking care of the goats and learning to ride and making new friends and his relationship with the other members of his new family.  There is an exciting forest fire at the end, but it is all told in such a direct, pleasant way that you kind of know nothing seriously bad is going to happen.

I once picked up a Polish hitchhiker on Vancouver Island and he was drinking goat milk and was quite enthusiastic about how good goat milk was for you.  If there was one lesson in this book, it was that goat milk is really good for you.  Christoph's main goal is to get some goats in his life, like he tended as a boy in Germany.  Anytime anybody has some health issues, they are healed by steady drinking of goat's milk.  I think I'm going to give it a try.

Hmmm, doing a bit of research, I have learned the Benary-Isbert's books were fairly succesful in their time and were primarily read by younger audiences.  She has several other books, including two about a family struggling in post-War Germany (The Ark and Rowan Farm) whose characters have small parts in The Long Way Home.  They sound similarily comforting and absorbing, so she will have to be added to the list!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

37. Flashpoint by Dan J. Marlowe

For some reason, with these American men's paperback crime books, I like the crime but not the espionage.  Partly because morally they assume that the CIA and FBI are basically good guys as these were intended for a mostly conservative white male audience.  They also just feel a bit contrived.  With the straight crime, the morality is pushed to one side and you stay within the realm of reality, more or less.  Flashpoint is a mix of both and I thus only halfly enjoyed it.  Dan J. Marlowe often walks this line and I definitely prefer him on the crime side.

For convoluted reasons of having to deliver money to somebody, Drake ends up on a private plane full of high-rollers on their way to Vegas.  It gets hijacked and brought down in the desert (with some quite nasty violence here).  So now Drake needs to go and get back the money he was delivering.  It turns out the hijackers are arab extremists who are committing these crimes to fund a bigger project of some kind.  The FBI agent who Drake worked with in a past book tracks him down and uses him to infiltrate the gang (which he doesn't want to do but sees it as a way to get his money back).

The rest of the book takes place entirely in and around New York City.  There is a really silly side story where he befriends a rich runaway waif who is hooked on tea and tries to save her.  She of course gets brutally murdered by the bad guys.  The bad guys are preposterous and the job involves heisting some nuclear material was pretty goofy as well, but it had some fun moments and didn't take itself too seriously.  Not on the top of the pantheon of Dan J. Marlowe books, for sure.

There is a beautiful Turkish woman in the book, but none of it
takes place anywhere near a middle eastern window like that.

Monday, June 10, 2019

36. The City of Gems by Joanna Trollope

I picked this up at the library sale.  It is the semi-fictional tale of the last monarch of Burma framed in the purely fictional (I believe) story of the European Colonials involved in their collapse.

Trollope paints an engrossing and fairly critical picture of the small gang of expats in Rangoon.  Though there are some decent characters, all of them are basically there to take advantage and exploit the resources.  I know the broad strokes of how Britian did this.  Reading about it in a story with all the details brings out how fucking awftul it all was.  The British trade with the monarch for the right to harvest the teak forests and dig up the ground.  In return, they bring them European "treasures" and try to curry favour with the capricious queen.  When it seems like the French are making a move to get these franchises, the British send in the navy, depose the king and queen and install their own rule.  This all actually happened.  What separates it from an outright invasion and in some ways makes it even more outrageous is how they justify it all with legal legitimacy, laws they already decided on.  Truly fucked.

Anyhow, it was an entertaining story, oddly easy-going despite the stakes and I learned some history

Thursday, June 06, 2019

35. Horizon by Helen Macinnes

I kind of feel that I need a cuff in the back of the head for having only read Helen MacInnes at the age of 50.  She is a giant in the field of espionage thrillers.  Now that I have read one of her books, I can say that it is at the very least as competent and entertaining as many of the other mainstream authors of that genre.  I am not sure why I neglected her before. I honestly want to say it is the same reason I hadn't read any Alistair Maclean, that she was just too mainstream and popular.  It is entirely possible though, that there was an unconscious bias in that she was a woman.  I can say that Horizon was easily superior to both the Maclean's I read (except HMS Ulysses), though those were his later works and generally considered inferior.

Horizon starts out in an Italian prison camp near the end of WWII, at the very northern end, near the border with Austria.  I knew very little about Tyrol, though I had vague memories studying the conflicts there during the war.  As portrayed richly by MacInnes, it is is its own culture, more Austrian in language and culture, but still considering themselves independent from both Italy and Austria, as well as oppressed by both.  The whole beginning sequence is great, where the protagonist, two-time escapee is planning his third, when the local guards abandon their posts and the men take over the prison. He is weirdly conflicted because his escape chance was ruined and it is suggested that he is kind of a rebel in general and just wanted to be on the run rather than reunited with the army.  He was a painter in peacetime.

Instead, he gets sent up to the South Tyrol to hide out there and act as a liaison for a potential allied invasion, to ensure they meet with the right local people (those waging a quiet resistance against the Italians and now the Nazis now that Mussolini's government has collapsed).  You get a great portrait, both physical and social of this part of the world.  The locals are quiet, independent mountain people.  You also get some classic WWII nazi baddies, coming in like they are liberating the Tyroleans from the Italians, but with an even more sinister and aggressive plan to take the menfolk for their last gasp arms productions.

My only frustration with the book was the characterization of the main character.  Annoyance and frustration are not pleasant emotions to read about in a book and he seemed constantly annoyed and frustrated right from the beginning, without any real background to understand why.  Yes, his escape was thwarted, but so what, the entire prison was liberated.  You slowly realize that he is kind of a rebel and the arc of his character is that he finds a positive role to play and comes to accept it.  It just wasn't developed on a sound foundation so you don't really connect with him. The locale, other characters, intrigue and action were all really good, so it is forgivable.  Good stuff and a new author for me to pick up.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

34. Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

This was a very nice palate cleanser after a few more difficult reads.  It is a middle-aged pre-WWII espionage fantasy for the sophisticated male, artfully written and absorbing, with great details, but ultimately light and unchallenging.  Coming from me, this is not a criticism.  I expected something a little darker and jarring, as an oncoming fascist takeover of the world tends to deliver.  Everything here is smooth sailing.  Cristian Ferrar is a Spanish ex-pat and successful lawyer in Paris at the end of the 1930s.  He flies to New York from time to time and has pretty cool love affairs there and in Paris.  He slowly gets drawn in to espionage in support of Republican Spain and this leads him on various adventures, each a pretty cool little spy vignette with great locations, characters and neat little details.  This was all thoroughly enjoyable for someone who is a fan of the period and genre.  It is very skillfully written, digestible without being overly simplistic.  The actual history is interspersed as well in a way that despite the lightness of the whole affair, does not fail to remind us of how awful we can be and how bad things got.  I think in another time, this book could be consumed entirely guilt-free, but given the all-too familiar shadow of fascism menacing the early 21st century, I think that current authors of this period need to deliver a bit more bite.  That being said, I am happy that he has quite a few other books out there waiting for me the next time I need such a pleasant diversion.

Note, I picked this up for a dollar at the book sale of the Grande Bibliotheque.  It along with another copy of the same book were being retired from circulation.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

33. Black Fox Running by Brian Carter

This was a very exciting little find, though now I can't remember exactly where.  It falls perfectly into my pastoral animals adventure sub-genre (need a better name) and though a bit slow for me to read, was a moving and engrossing story that is going on the shelf.

It's the story of Wulfgar, a large and powerful fox living in Dartmoor after the end of World War II. As it say in the preface, Brian Carter "knows Dartmoor intimately and for years has been a very close observer of foxes and other animals".  It shows.  There is a really nice hand-drawn map (though quite small in detail, so that at this age I needed to really squint to read it) and the text lovingly details the animals, insects, plants and agricultural life of this region.  At times, he went into such detail, with very specific names and terms to the point that I kind of lost the thread.  I love the literature of British rural life, but I am not a nerd about it and having very little room for facts left in my soul, this kind of detail is lost on me.  It is not a knock on the book at all, just to point out that it took me a long time to read it because of this.  Better informed readers would find this element a positive, because even when I didn't know which bird he was referring to, it still felt very evocative and transported you to that place.  I really need to do a trip to this part of the world, if it hasn't all already been developed over.

Though much of the book is Wulfgar's life as a fox, there is a strong narrative thread.  Scoble, the shell-shocked trapper is obsessed with Wulfgar and as his life slowly succumbs to alchoholism, disease and the psychological ravages of surviving the trenches of World War I, he wages a horrific war against all the little creatures and foxes especially.  There are some interesting class issues that are well portrayed, as the local gentry retard Scobles cruel ways, as they want the foxes kept alive for their sport.  Interestingly, the two most sympathetic humans are a young boy who loves nature (and of course is treated as being a bit simple) and an American ex-fighter pilot coming to the country to recover. 

At first, Scoble and his mad dog Jacko are portrayed as real monsters and they do some horrible things.  There is also conflict between him and the American.  But by the end, you almost feel sorry for him.  His end underlines a quiet but powerful theme against war that elevates this book beyond the simple ecological message.

[Note on the slow output for the month of May, NBA playoffs were intense with the Warriors gunning for their 4th championship title with this team plus me playing a lot of basketball and daughter activities getting more varied.  Social media usage was down, so can't use that as an excuse.]