Tuesday, July 23, 2019

47. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This was a cool find, though not by me.  There is a very nice bookshelf of free books in the basement/laundry area of the apartment where we stay in Vancouver. It is usually pretty mainstream stuff (almost a dozen Lee Child's) which is nice if you are desperate, but it is not often I find anything of true value there.  My wife grabbed this one, after I thought I had thoroughly checked the shelf, and she thought I might find it interesting.  She was correct!  I didn't even know it existed nor its import in the history of detective fiction, so a fail on the part of my education there.

As it says on the back cover, The Moonstone is one of the earliest detective stories in English fiction.  It was originally serialized in the 1860s and was quite popular, as were the later book versions.  It's the story of a massive diamond stolen from the head of a Hindu statue by British soldiers which makes its way to England, as well as the three Indian men whose family lineage is to hunt down and return the diamond to its rightful place.  The black sheep uncle who stole the diamond bequeaths it to his niece (either as redemption with his family or revenge, it isn't clear at first).  When the niece receives it on her 21st birthday, it is stolen.  The narrative is long and told from several viewpoints: the head butler of the house, the cousin who transported the diamond, the family lawyer, a distant cousin (and funnily and scathingly portrayed religious zealot who is constantly trying to convert people and then leaving them improving pamphlets when she fails) and a few others.

It's long and it takes a long time to unravel the mystery.  What is cool (and what Dorothy L. Sayers makes a big deal of in her intro) is that you can figure most of it out in the first part when the crime happens.  It does tend to meander and at points I felt the mystery was somewhat artificially drawn out (like the victim daughter refusing to speak to anybody for years about it when if she had just opened up everything would have been resolved way faster).  Nevertheless, the various narrators are all so interesting and enjoyable written that I really didn't mind.  The ending veers into a side story about a half-caste doctor's assistant that is quite moving and cool.  It was nice to read this book at this point in my 50 books journey, because I am so far ahead, I didn't feel the need to rush and was quite happy to jump into 400+ pages of Victorian drama and detection. 

The theft of the diamond is portrayed as a negative action, though it is the undiscipline of the troops that is the problem not the reality of invading some foreign country to take over its resources.  The more I read this summer, the more I am reminded of how fucking basically barbaric British colonialism was, the moreso by how they masked it in legality and codes of ethics.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

46. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

I have now started adding the source or reference for books that I have on my wanted list.  Too many times I find a book and I have completely forgotten how it came to my attention. Such is the case with Nancy Mitford.  My sense is that it came indirectly from a high-falutin' place (I am not in direct contact with such places) such as the New Yorker.  She, I believe, had a minor renaissance recently, as evinced by the beautiful Folio version I found at Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver (their store on West Broadway). 

Given my gradually increasing tendency towards British Literature, with an emphasis on the upper classes, this book fell perfectly in my area of current interest.  It is kind of like Trollope on crack, although there really is much less of a true narrative here and it takes place in the mid-20th century.  Things have changed a lot from Trollope's time and at least in this book, Mitford is much funnier.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Mitford is sort of a blend of Trollope and P.G. Wodehouse.  At it's core is the same desire to look at the characters and behaviours of the British aristocracy.

Love in a Cold Climate follows the Hampton family, the perfect British gentleman and man of state who is the father, the egotistical and motivating wife and their beautiful, disconnected daughter, Polly.  That trio and the various characters around them are expertly and humorously described by the more middle class, though still from an aristocratic family of her own (with an equally entertaining portrayal), narrator, a cousin and friend to Polly.  There isn't a lot of story at first and the crux of the plot is around when and who Polly decides to marry and the fallout.  It's the ride that is the real pleasure.  Not all her books were social comedies, so I am not sure about her entire bibliography but I will now be looking in the literature section of used book stores for her other books like that.  I believe that this is actually the second book and I should have started with The Pursuit of Love.  Both were at the bookstore and I only took this one, not being sure.  Fool, I.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

45. Deadly Welcome by John D. MacDonald

So I was in Vancouver and did some fairly decent book-hunting. One thing I noted was the messiness of used bookstores.  Even the main Pulp Fiction store on Main was uncharacteristically cluttered with boxes so that you couldn't get at some shelves.  Macleod's was absolutely out of control.  There was literally a horizontal pile of books going along the back wall as if they had been dumped there by a bulldozer.  I am sure there are major space limitations and it may be that used books are coming in at an unprecedented rate as 20th century book owners die off.  Nevertheless, I find it deplorable.  There are ways to organize your stock to allow customers access and to allow you to more efficiently get the sellable stuff on the shelves.  Sometimes I want to just volunteer myself to spend six months in some of these bookstores whipping them into shape.

That being said, I did make a really nice little find at Macleod's.  7 of the late Ed Gorman's top 10 non-Travis McGee John D. MacDonald's all in a pile on the floor.  I have spoken before (and had some nice comments about) the ubiquity of his books, but these were just too beautiful to pass up.  Plus any opportunity to render hommage to Mr. Gorman I will take.  Check these beauties out!

Unfortunately, the first one I read, Deadly Welcome, I did not like as much as Ed.  It starts out as a spy novel, where an agent is sent back to his home town to convince a retired genius engineer to come back and work for the government.  The old engineer is holed up in this Florida shithole because his wife, who was from there and dragged him back there, was also murdered there and he can't move on.  So it veers quickly into a murder mystery.  The small town is portrayed exquisitely (and depressingly) and the brutal deputy sheriff who dominates the downtrodden of the region with the tacit support of the law-abiding citizens is an excellent antagonist.  Unfortunately, it all felt a bit rushed. The mystery was not mysterious and the resolution was only extended with a kidnapping of the main female character (and burgeoning love interest) you could see coming for pages and felt very unecessary.  I am not too critical because this was originally a short story that MacDonald expanded into a novel, but so far probably my least favourite of his non-McGee novels.  As Gorman said "Not all JDM fans like this novel but I’ve read it three or four times and enjoyed it every trip out." and I must include myself in that group of not all JDM fans.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

44. Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

I picked this up new from a pretty cool mobile bookstore called Iron Dog Books that was outside of Jazzfest in Vancouver.  I had been looking for it used for a while and despite its popularity (or perhaps because of) was having no luck.  I was happy to support this store as the woman who owned it really knew her stuff and had an excellently curated selection.  Ironically, I found a used copy plus the other two of the trilogy at Pulpfiction books the next day.

If you are a contemporary science fiction fan, you should be aware of Anne Leckie and the Imperial Radch trilogy by now.  It is a big success and I can confirm that it lives up to the hype.  It's part of the new wave of what I will term "woke space opera".  There is a lot to get in a huff about here and people already have.  I won't go too far down that road except to say that science fiction is always a reflection of the time it is written.  The theme of the impact of colonization (and particularly as finally being perceived by the colonizers themselves) is central to this book and gender identity as in issue is interwoven into the narrative.  To my mind, it is all an integral part of a really interesting whole and the story and setting are rich and engaging and the themes so integral to them that nothing in this story seems forced or having any kind of agenda.  It's just really good science fiction.

I won't go too deeply into the story either, as you can find that all over the web.  I was hooked from the start as the main character is a ship as well as many "ancillaries" or the stolen human bodies that its AI can inhabit to do all of the ship's various duties (such as serve its officers, annex other civilizations and then later police them).  They are part of the Radch Empire, whose raison d'etre is to "civilize" other human races, with systematic annexation using their giant AI ships and their ancillaries.  The actual humans who run these ships come from houses of various interlocking statuses.  It's a really cool set up and of course things get complicated.  I will leave it there. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

43. The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

This is the second book by Lionel Davidson I have found (picked it up in Amsterdam) and is his second book and much earlier than Kolmynsky Heights.  It's the story of a young man who sneaks into Tibet in 1950 in search of his brother who somehow got separated from a film crew.  Post-WWII Northern India, Tibet and western China is an interesting and complex time and this is a great view of it on the ground (and mostly from an ignorant outsider).  Compared to Kolmynsky Heights, though quite adventurous and perhaps a bit over the top, I found The Rose of Tibet to be much more grounded and realistic (though similarly to Kolmynsky Heights the ability to survive extreme cold seems quite fantastical).  I am much more convinced of Davidson's reputation now. 

I think part of his appreciation, at least for the The Rose of Tibet, is that this is a true adventure book, along the lines of John Buchan (there is even a long hiding out in a hole sequence), but couched in more modern terms and context.  There is gruelling mountain travel, which I usually find hard to connect to, but here you really feel the pain and struggle.  There is some great sneaking around and intrigue and weird characters.  And there is some pretty hardcore action, including a gruesome battle between starving man and starving bear.  The entire book is framed as if Lionel Davidson is an editor who stumbles upon this true story but struggles to corroborate it (as the protagonist cannot be found) and so publishes it as fiction.  This left the ending feeling a bit deflated, but the adventure along the way is so much fun that it is excused.

Great book.  Try and find it.

Monday, July 01, 2019

42. Reflection of Evil (originally Death of a Fox) by Jan Roffman

A pretty classic 60s British gothic thriller, uplifted somewhat by the really tight unity of place.  Young widow Joanna Crane with her 4-year old son Mark, in economic desperation takes a job as a live-in housemaid in a sad duplex at the end of a country lane.  Her employer is laconic to say the least and utterly without sympathy, a stern, isolated old man with meagre but specific wants.  We learn that Joanna's husband died two years earlier and her attentions to his disease (and of course his death) have made her son somewhat neurotic and needy.  Things quickly get weird when the perspective switches to a man hiding in the attic, spying on her and wondering how she will mess up his plans.  Who he is and what those plans are take a while to learn, and it is part of the anxiety/fun.  It is winter and the constant snow storms play a crucial role in Joanna's psychological struggle with at first isolation and then fear when she discovers the existence of this third player in their little house.

So much of the protagonist's action is passive in these books.  I find it really challenging to read.  They are really slow, agonizing burns. Instead of the intermittent release of some ass-kicking you get in the men's action books, in these gothic thrillers you spend a lot of time just following the heroine as she tries to figure stuff out, then tries to master her emotions and then tries to just survive and not get harmed and more importantly, not allow that which is precious to her be harmed (in this case, her son).  She is also constantly blaming herself for everything and being so critical of what she considers tactical mistakes, when you as a reader recognize that she is actually pretty darn brave and making the best of a really fucked up situation.  I guess this is so the love interest (in this case, the town doctor) can later absolve her directly.  And in the end, she does actively save herself and her son with some desperate but direct action.

I found the backstory here pretty cool and well thought out (which they aren't always in this genre), and the stuffy, cheap, cold house very convincing and unpleasant.  The location and the side characters as well were well developed.  There was also a fox struggling with the winter that was a nice (if sad) touch.  The romance wasn't as fleshed out as it could have been, almost felt like an afterthought.  Really, the meat here is about a woman trapped in a house with a killer, isolated in a winter storm and how she survives.  Solid.