Wednesday, October 30, 2019

84. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I found this on the street in a bag filled with mainstream mysteries and literary fiction, all in good condition amongst other household items, often found on Montreal streets during moving weekends.  I took it because it caused a lot of excitement here in Canada and because I had heard an interview with John C. Reilly who was so humbly and charmingly pleased with the movie he produced based on the book.  My wife had read it a few years ago and said it was pretty good.  As it turned out, she still had her copy, so I needn't have even stretched out my on deck shelf.  Though knowing my capricious motivations around which book to read, I may never have gotten to it had I not stumbled upon it in a ripped open black garbage bag.

Before I get into all the annoying things around this book, I will say straight off that it is a really good book, a great story with funny, likable characters that makes you want to turn the pages.  The author worked hard at it, did a good job and deserves all the money and respect he got from its success.  What bugs me is why does this book get elevated to some elite status, while there have been so many great westerns that are not dressed up with cool graphic design and marketed to an educated readership that are just lost in time?  I think I answered my own question.  I am just always suspicious when a "literary" author writes what is basically a genre book and it gets treated with so much respect and publicity while great, great writers languished away, their books not getting the respect simply because they are seen as lower-class.  It's very much like Tarantino, who "elevates" movie genres he claims he loves by filling them with faux-intelligent dialogue, high production values and great actors and he is thus an "auteur" (to be fair, I enjoyed deWitt's treatment of the western far more than any of Tarantino's work). 

This is especially true in Canada, with its precious, desperate, incestuous and back-biting canlit world.  DeWitt doesn't even live in Canada and likely hasn't for years (though coming from Sydney on the island and being only 6 years younger than me, I wonder if I may have ever run into him back in the day) and gets adopted as a Canadian writer by the media here.  What is Canadian about this book?  It takes place entirely in the United States and the underlying themes and tropes are mostly American (the expansion of the west, man exploiting and destroying nature, killing people).  I guess you could argue that the softer nature of the narrator (the nicer one of the two brothers) and his desire to just live a slower life and do something mundane is pretty Canadian.

Anyhow, to the story itself!  It's about two brothers who are hired killers, working for a powerful employer known as The Commodore.  They are sent to San Francisco to hunt down a man, Hermann Warm, who supposedly stole money from the Commodore.  The first half of the book we slowly get to know the two brothers as they encounter various adventures between Oregon City and San Francisco.  We learn that the older one is much more aggressive and meaner and the younger one is deep down a sensitive sould.  In the second half of the book, they get to San Francisco and learn about Warm and what he was up to which tests their alliance and motivations.

It is written in a Runyon-esque style, with the first-person narration by the younger more sensitive brother speaking in a rich and educated vocabulary that is entertaining to read, though makes the whole thing feel somewhat unrealistic.  I guess this is what makes it literary fiction and not just a genre book.  It's a lot of fun learning about the brothers' characters as well as them employing their wits and badassedness to deal with situations.  The second half gets really interesting and crazy.  A very enjoyable read all in all.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

83. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

The second in the Ancillary trilogy and just as hyped and hard to find used.  Now that I have gotten my reading lungs back up to capacity, I am no longer so worried about reading trilogies and series.  The issue, though, is that I want to start reading them in order without such long waits between books.  It's not like there is a shortage of good science fiction and fantasy series out there, far more than I will be able to read, that I have to space them out.  And I find that when I come back to a series, I've forgotten a lot of the details and story from the previous book.

Such is the case with Ancillary Sword, whose predecessor, Ancillary Justice, I read this summer. 
Actually not that far back, but far enough that I had forgotten most of the secondary characters.  Fortunately, Leckie seems aware of this potential problem and puts subtle catch-up narrations in the beginning and throughout the book.  None of these are intrusive and they are just helpful enough that by the time the plot really got going, I was pretty much refreshed on what had happened in the first book.  Furthermore, this is an entire universe, so she does need to explain a lot to the reader.  Having the main character be an ex-AI, thousands of years old and still connected to a ship allows for the author as Leckie to do a lot of telling that feels like showing.

The story of the vast colonizing Raadchi empire and its slowly unfolding civil war continues with Breck, the aforementioned ancillary (the human bodies used by ship's AIs to do all their physical work) is promoted to Fleet Captain by the Raadchi tyrant and sent to a distant system to check on the shut down gates there (rebellious forces having taken to attacking gates).  Here we discover another colonized planet, this time for its superior tea and the cultures that have been suppressed/assimilated.  Breq and her crew (all women) sniff out the local politics, both uncovering the injustices that have been done to the locals and others while also seeing how they may or may not be connected to the bigger picture of the warring halves of the Raadchi.

This book is kind of a woke post-colonial revenge fantasy. If you had incredible physical power and influence and were say sent to America as the slave trade was starting, what would you do?  This is sort of the question that is asked here, in a science fiction setting.  Berq is sort of a combination superhero/Sherlock Holmes/elite diplomat-strategist caught in a war where both sides may or may not be evil whose goal is to try and minimize damage to the innocents caught in the middle.  It's very satisfying.  While there is a bit of ass-kicking, what I love in this book is how much of the real tension and excitement comes from super-polite dialogue and personality standoffs.  The Raadchi have an extremely polite society (which goes hand in hand with the atrocities of their colonization, which I believe is a point Leckie is making) and there is tons of great diplomacy and oneupmanship that goes on.  I also believe that every single character in this book is a woman (though gender and how it works is not totally defined for the reader) and I caught myself several times assuming that characters in positions of authority were men, even though they had already been introduced.  Old habits!

The climax in the first book was breathless and long with a ton of stuff going down and while I enjoyed it, it took me ever so slightly out of the narrative.  I was relieved that this one did not go down the same path, eschewing an over-the-top climax for something much smaller and more subtle that nevertheless delivered a very exciting and satisfying conclusion.

Great book.  I am very excited for the third one.  My only problem are the titles.  They are kind of interchangeable (as is the trade dress), so I keep getting them mixed up.  They also don't make sense, because there are different types of ships in the Raadchi universe: Mercys, Swords and Justices.  In the first book, she is a Justice (a troop carrier) and the book is called Ancillary Justice.  In this book, Breq pilots a Mercy (the smallest of the ships) and it's called Ancillary Sword.  There is a Sword that plays a significant role, but it's not the main ship or character.  We shall see what happens in the next book, Ancillary Mercy.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

82. Testament by David Morrell

Despite the unattractive modern "best-seller" look of this copy, it was David Morrell's name that grabbed my eye in the thrift store and the 1975 original publishing date that sealed the deal for me to pick this book up. I would love to find an original paperback copy but am happy to have this one, as I didn't have to worry about keeping it in good shape while travelling.

It starts off about as rough as you can get and written skillfully that you are caught up in the momen, while wondering what the hell is going on and yet somehow being almost fully in the picture by the second chapter.  It's rough, almost too brutal.  The plot is that Reuben Bourne, a thriller writer who also does long-piece journalism on the side, has written an expose piece on the leader of a white supremacist movement.  The leader knew he was going to be charged with a crime soon and was using the journalist to put him in a good light, which Bourne in his conscience decided not to do.  Now the leader will exact his revenge, which is what happens right at the beginning of the book.  Their organization is sophisticated with sympathizers embedded in law enforcement and Bourne and his family are forced to go on the run.

The revenge exacted is so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, and definitely so horrifying that I contemplated not reading anymore.  I am not into excessive nastiness as a literary ploy in thrillers and Morrell almost crosses a line here.  However, these are really the catalyst that set the rest of the book in motion, an adventure of flight and survival, much of it taking place in the mountains and the winter.  In the foreward (that I read afterward), Morrel explained that the literature on outdoor survival wasn't convincing enough for him, so he did a 5-week NOLS course.  He puts his training to work in the story here!

As I should have expected from Morrell, this book is more thoughtful and complex than just a straight up survival/revenge thriller and while I was hoping for something a bit easier, in the end, this was quite interesting and rewarding. His foreward also helped to make the less satisfying ending in the narrative more understandable.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

81. U-Boat 977 by Heinz Schaeffer

Wow, great find!  I picked this up at the Rennaissance Thrift store here in Mont-Royal.  It's a nice looking paperback but it was the forward by Nicolas Monsarrat that sealed the deal for me.  He starts out quite aggressively arguing against any apology for behaviour by German officers and soldiers during World War II and being super clear that he recognizes Schaeffer's job on a U-Boat as being evil.  Nevertheless, the actual story of what it was like being on a German U-Boat and in particular their escape to Argentina at the end of the war, Monsarrat says is worth reading and knowing.

The first half of the book is disturbing.  It's a classic tale of the good German just doing his duty.  Schaeffer grows up loving sailing and joins the navy just as the war starts.  He gets routed into the submarine program and ends up joining a crew.  It's hard to know how much of it is post-facto, but he clearly identifies himself as a good German, with Nazism being some distant phenomenon that he had little if anything to do with.  We know today that this was often the case for many career men in the military and particularly the navy.  Nevertheless, even if you separate out the hateful ideology of Nazism, you still have to recognize that it was Germany invading everybody else so this "just doing my duty" narrative does not hold up well.  This is brought into strong relief the way Schaeffer describes their successful torpedoing of cargo ships, with little thought to he men who perished horribly. 

Most of the book though focuses on the life and work details of being on a submarine and this was pretty interesting and intense.  Though they were the predators at least until the tide was turned with radar, it still required a lot of brutal labour and psychological pressure.  They had to stay hidden constantly and only pop up to fire off their torpedoes.  The risk was incredible.  Of the 40,000 U-Boat sailors in WWII, 30,000 died.

U-Boat 977 really goes to another level when the war ends.  Schaeffer, who was only 23 and a new captain puts the vote to the crew as to what they want to do.  Fearing retribution from the victors (which was not unwarranted, though Goebbels' propaganda machine had amped up these fears to insane degrees where they truly feared all of Germany was going to be razed and turned into goat fields), they decided to flee to Argentina.  This triggers an incredible journey, first with 66 days submerged to avoid the Allied dragnet and get into the Atlantic where the ship starts to rot, the men grow sick with rashes, their clothes are constantly wet.  It's really bonkers and a testament to their discipline that they survived without killing each other or just giving up.  When they do sneak through, because of low fuel they spend the rest of the trip on the surface and that is also crazy, where they basically hang out on the deck getting tan, growing huge beards, fishing and surfing off the bows of the sub! 

This was a fantastic read.  As well as just being a crazy adventure, it is also a nice counterpoint to the two great narratives of the convoys of the Second World War, Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea and Alistair Maclean's HMS Ulysses.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

80. Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

I bought this at the Salvation Army in the NDG neighbourhood of Montreal, a stop of a fairly demoralizing book hunt out there.  Pickings were slim.  Still, a J.G. Ballard collection of short stories from the early 60s for less than a buck and a few other decent finds left me feeling not totally unsatisfied.  It's odd, though, you would think that the anglo neighbourhoods of Montreal, which tend to be pretty old demographically, would have lots of nice book finds.  It hasn't really been the case so far.

I also discovered as I started reading the second story that I had already read it.  This prompted me to go back to my old posts where I discovered that three of the stories here were also in The Disaster Area.  (The Subliminal man one of my favourites about a nightmare consumerist world, Now Wakes the Sea evocative story of a man convinced the ocean is washing up on his neighbourhood each and Minus One a very funny story about an asylum for the wealthy who lose a patient until they convince themselves he never existed)  No matter, as I had quite enjoyed that and it was back in 2012 so I was certainly read to be washed over anew in Ballardian sense of isolation and deserted post-industrial landscapes.

I also suspect I had already read The Last World of Mr. Goddard, about a department store clerk who goes home to open a miniature of his world in a safe in a closet.  This was quite neat, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode.  The Time Tombs, about men searching memory tapes in ancient tombs had a cool setting.  The Venus Hunters is a story about an astronomer who meets a man who is convinced that he met Venusians and slowly gets drawn into his illusion, which it actually isn't.  Both these last two were intriguing but ultimately didn't really go anywhere conclusive.  Finally, there was a small story The Sudden Afternoon about a man who has his body invaded by somebody else transferring his personality into him, an Indian doctor on the run for killing his wife (who had cancer whom he also transferred).  That one was neat.  The last and titular story, Terminal Beach is a classic Ballardian tale.  A man is wandering around in some massive nuclear bomb test site, filled with rows of bunkers and piles of mannequins.  The geometry of the bunkers become the schedule of his life as he tries to uncover some unnamed mystery while also catching glimpses of his wife and child who died in a car accident.  The imagery in this one was stunning.

Ballard is a trip.  You have to take him in small doses and as I said in my review of The Disaster Area in some ways his short stories are an ideal way to do this.  Quite enjoyable to revisit the ones I had already read and to allow myself to be absorbed the new ones.

Monday, October 21, 2019

79. One-Way Ticket by Dolores and Bert Hitchens

I've been looking for any book by Dolores Hitchens for quite some time now so was happy to discover this at Pulp Fiction in Vancouver, but slightly disappointed that it was a collaboration with her husband, rather than a "pure" Dolores Hitchens.  I needn't have been.  Her husband was a railroad detective and at least in this collaboration the combo comes out solidly.

It's the mid-50s and the story takes place in and around Los Angeles, mostly in the poorer parts of town and industrial neighbourhoods.  Everywhere there is a feeling of inevitable change as well as loss.  Streets so down that they seem ready to simply disintegrate and be replaced by modern homes for a wealthier class, the last house now surrounded by warehouses and machine shops, an entire block already razed to make way for a new hospital.  The writing of place here is very evocative, that sun-blasted southern California noir that makes you want to go to a bar and get a drink.

The protagonist is ambivalent railroad detective Vic Moine.  He is going with a rich girl whose dad wants him to join his law firm, but his dad was a cop and he doesn't really know what he wants to do besides a resentment and suffocation against anybody trying to hem him in.  His character arc is what strings the entire book together, but the real storyline is the cases he is investigating, especially the passing of forged railway reimbursement checks.  This puts him on the trail of a strange group of two men and two women and a baby.  I liked this book all around, but the mundane detecting I particularly enjoyed.  There is a lot of Moine just walking and driving around, talking to people, thinking things through, hashing things out with his boss. It felt very real, yet very interesting.  They wrote another one together and I will not hesitate to grab it if it every crosses my path.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

78. Prisoner of Fire by Edmund Cooper

Well this was the first really bad book that I've read this year.  It's disappointing too because the trade dress was right up my alley.  A beautiful Coronet paperback from the 70s with lovely typography and layout on the cover (though the illustration isn't very exciting).  It also has that nice rich paper and wide margins that make these books so physically pleasurable to read.  I also thought I was in for a great ride at the beginning which starts with a teenage telepath blocking the probes of the authorities and planning her escape from her residential school/prison for psychic kids. 

Early on, the warning signs came.  First, a creepy suggestion that the middle-aged professor who studies her is also sexually interested in her and she in him.  Yuck.  Sadly, this theme becomes more than a suggestion as we have several situations where older men are with younger women romantically/sexually against or with their will.  There is also lots of arbitrary young sexuality thrown in purely for thrills like the throwaway line where one of the psychic boys is just sitting their masturbating.  I am fine with this stuff if it fits in, even if it isn't PC, but this is just thrown in purely for prurience.  It's already gross, but is also awkward and rarely makes any sense.  This reads like it was written by the 13-year old Dungeon Master that nobody wants to play with.

The girl does escape and ends up being a pawn between the autocratic Prime Minister (this takes place in the 90s with hovercars and tri-dis which are 3D televisions) and the opposition as well as a deranged telepathy expert who has assembled a gang of psychic misfits.  It all could have been fun plot wise, but everything is done so unsubtly, the pace is clunky and all the characters suck.  What's worse is that the ostensible protagonist, the girl, is utterly passive even though she has the best psychic power in all of Europe.  Again, I don't mind junkiness if it's fun and the story is well put together as in my foray into some of those Paperbacks from Hell around the theme of maternity.  Prisoner of Fire seemed to be aiming for that same audience, horny adolescent boys I guess.  Sadly, this British attempt at the genre was far inferior to the American counterpart. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

77. We All Killed Grandma by Fredric Brown

I found this at the same sidewalk sale at Port de Tête, where I found The Stolen Documents.  I was kind of looking forward to this book as I haven't read one by Fredric Brown in quite some time.  He can be very clever and inventive and I was looking forward to seeing how he handled what looked like a murder mystery from the cover. 

The story starts out with the protagonist, Rod, going to see a woman that somebody advised him against seeing.  We soon learn that he has recently suffered from amnesia and the woman he is going to see is his ex-wife.  We learn further that his grandmother was murdered, shot by a burglar and that Rod had discovered her body.  Some shock at finding her body completely knocked out his memory.  The rest of the book is him putting the pieces of his life back together in his mind and by extension trying to figure out what happened on the night of the murder.

The first half of the book reminded me a lot of Donald Westlake's Memory. It captures a similar lost feeling, though the difference here is that while Rod has lost all his personal memories, his personality and skills have not diminished any.  Rod cannot accept the burglar story and even suspects that he himself may well be the person who murdered his grandmother.  He has no memory that he can remember that would disprove the burglar story and the evidence is all quite sound.  But he keeps digging away.  As the book moves forward, he also eases mostly back into his life, except that he realizes he still (or newly) loves his ex-wife and wants to get back with her while she wants nothing to do with him.  The mystery takes precedence in the last third and is finally revealed in the end.  I was not totally satisfied with the ending as there was info missing from the reader so no way we could have guessed it.  The payoff did not really connect with the amnesia (though it did somewhat explain it) and so it felt a bit like a gimmick to keep the reader guessing.  The rebuilding of his life was actually more interesting and moving.  It's interesting, because the Westlake book still haunts me and it went the opposite direction, where any mystery narrative was discarded and the story was really about how the loss of memory would affect you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

76. Stolen Documents by S. Beresford Lucas

I picked this up for a dollar at the Port de Tête bookstore during a sidewalk sale.  I read it now as a quick palate cleanser between the epicness of Barkskins and whatever I decide to read next (that will probably involve nasty grown-up behaviours).  This book also involved nasty grown-up behaviours, mainly Germans kidnapping plucky young sons of American millionaire inventors via U-Boat and stowing them in a secret underwater lairs in the Chartney Islands.  Fortunately (or unfortunately for the Germans), the plucky American was also accidently accompanied by two plucky British lads whom he had just rescued when they got caught in a squall in their rowboat.  The three youth thwart the Germans and have a rollicking adventure.

It's all very boys adventure, as advertised on the tin.  The bad guys beyond their accents and speaking in a foreign language are barely distinguishable from a common criminal organization, except that their plan is to attack London (with the ray that they hope to extort from the American's millionaire inventor father).  It was first published in 1938, before the war had officially started and I guess ideology is not really at play either at this time or for this audience.  They are bad guys who want to take over and thus should be stopped.  The American is portrayed in an extremely positive light, as skilled and gutsy, but also fun-loving and joking non-stop.  The three boys become great friends and their heroics are rewarded by getting to spend the rest of the summer together!  It's an interesting contrast to post-war resentment of the easy and rich Americans we find portrayed in some British genre fiction.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

75. Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Phew!  Talk about sweeping.  My friend Chris recommended this to me when he came up to visit.  I guess things in Montreal kept reminding him of Barkskins.  It was on my list and I found a nearly new hardback copy at the free shelf up on St-Viateur (that thing has been a rich mine for me this year).  I was a bit regretful that I had picked this massive tome up with so many books on my on-deck shelf, but I jumped in and devoured it.  700+ pages of historical fiction in just over two days! 

To be honest, it reads quickly.  It begins as the story of two french men who have just arrived in Nouvelle France.  They get a job as indentured servants working on this dude's homestead.  One runs away and joins up with the voyageurs, eventually making a fortune from converting furs to capital to timber rights.  The other stays, chops a ton of trees and marries a Miq'maq woman.  Going in, I though the book would unravel mostly in this period.  Had I looked at the chapter names, each of which had dates, I would have realized that it is an epic crossing almost 400 years and 8 generations of these two family lines.  The one who ran away, Duquet, starts a small timber empire and we follow it as it expands with the inward colonization of North America.  The one who stayed, Sel, starts a line of Métis, most of whom are connected with the forest industry at the bottom end.  From their narrative, we see how colonialism impacts the native people and the land itself.

Other than the first two characters and a woman president of Duke Lumbrer (what Duquet's company involves into), the book moves pretty quickly through characters so that you never really get too attached.  I am not saying this as a criticism, because I was so caught up in the narrative and wanted to find out what happened, that I was happy to move forward quickly.  The pace and how many of the characters die quite brutally and sadly, does distance one from the human connection.  Ultimately, though, this book is really about the forest and how we use and abuse it as humans.  And that part, you really feel.  It also brings home the reality of colonialism for the indigenous populations.  I had never though of agriculture as being in itself a damaging element of colonialism, but there is a part where the Miq'Maq lament how a french settler's cow has eaten hundreds of varieties of medicinal plants that don't ever grow back.  The ending got a bit rushed and preachy, but I am converted to the argument that our ways have fucked this beautiful planet up and so was enjoying the sermon. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

74. The Silver Tide by Michael Tod

The Silver Tide has been on my hunting list for a long time and it is one more in the animal adventure sub-genre (though sub of what I am not sure).  I've done cats, foxes, moles and now squirrels.  This one takes place in Dorset, in southern England.  A community of red squirrels (native to England and once thriving across the entire island and now mainly gone) live around a lovely blue lake.  Their tranquil lives are upset when a pair of grey squirrels show up, not only a different colour, but larger and with very different attitudes about property.  They also have some understanding about numbers beyond 8 (the amount of claws on a squirrels two front paws) and can arrange rocks in a way to create a powerful force.

And these grey squirrels have no qualms about their aims, which is to drive the reds out and take over their territory for their own "leaping room".  The first two are a vanguard, to scout and soften resistance by intimidation.  The red squirrels, peaceful, communitarian (they don't believe in or even understand private property) are easily intimidated and when the wave of greys come in, they do leave and thus begins the adventure.

It's very fast-paced, a bit baldly told, but quite enjoyable.  A lot goes on and it develops in an unexpected way so that it didn't end up with the typical epic battle versus the evil oppressor. You get a nice sense of the setting as well.  Really makes me want to visit this area (in the afterword Tod actually gives the address of the Blue Lake and recommends checking out the museum there).  Now to hunt down books 2 and 3!

(Note: this is the 74th book for me this year, a new personal record.)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

73. The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen

This is actually the first Ellery Queen book I have ever read.  I have never been too attracted to them, I guess because they felt common and I was never clear there would be a strong authorial voice. Having read this, I now know that all the Ellery Queen books featuring Queen himself as the detective were written by two cousins.  There are many other books under the Ellery Queen imprint, written by other authors, and of course the magazine.  The Spanish Cape Mystery was written in 1935 and is around the 9th in the series. 

I have to say, it was quite an enjoyable, competent and at times demonstrated its own character, enough that I would be interested in picking up another one.  It's a real mystery, to the point that near the end, there is an interlude, a brief chapter all in italics where the author(s) tell you that you now have all the info that Ellery Queen has and can go back and make an effort to solve the mystery yourself.  That was kind of fun and made more so because I actually figured it out.  I was lazy on some of the details, but did guess the broad plot of the conspiracy and who the killer actually was.  I never used to be able to even come close to figuring mysteries out on my own (excepting one Sherlock Holmes story; The Case of Silver Blaze), so I guess all this reading and wisdom is paying off.  This interlude was a trope in all the Ellery Queen books.

The story here is about a wealthy couple with a secluded mansion on the coast northeast of New York City.  The husband avoids the guests and wants to potter around in his garden.  His wife is the socialite and has invited a weird crew of guests.  Her brother and her daughter, out for a walk on the grounds late on night while the others are playing bridge are brutally kidnapped at gunpoint.  The brother is taken away, mistaken for one of the guests, a playboy named Marco.  Later, Marco himself is found murdered on the verandah by the beach (the kidnappers ostensibly having discovered their mistake), stark naked but for a cape around his shoulders.  As it happens, Ellery Queen and an older ex-judge of his were coming out this way to take a well-earned vacation at a neighbouring beach house and they get involved in the murder.

The characters are quite good and the dialogue was fun.  There are very wealthy people, the servants and then the striving guests in between.  Class plays a role but it never gets really nasty.  Likewise, the local sheriff does a lot of the heavy lifting and is always a step behind Queen, and yet is treated with respect and shown to have positive characteristics.  The entire proceedings are somewhat light in delivery and done in a pleasant way, though the characters themselves have traits of hard-boiledness.  It makes for a nice middle ground and I can see why these books were so popular in their time.  I understand, though, that the tone varies as does Queen's persona.  We shall see.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

72. A Time to Kill by Geoffrey Household

I am not a Geoffrey Household completist by any means, but this beautiful first edition really caught my eye when I spotted it at Black Cat Books.

A Time to Kill is indeed a "tightly-plotted, fast-moving story of international intrigue" as it says on the inside flap.  So fast-moving that it only has a single chapter (or no chapters, depending on how you want to look at it).  It is conducive to being read in a single sitting and I basically finished it within 24 hours.

Taine, the protagonist, is the typical Household hero, practical, slightly sardonic and ultimately British.  His superior asks him to look in on an ex-British fascist, who was exiled and now has snuck back into England in a boat in which he lives.  Labelled "Pink", he spent the years after the war mixing with the various dregs of scattered fascists, many now part of the international Communist movement. There he discovered a plot to bring anthrax-poisoned ticks back into England to destabilize economy and society.  Though exiled, he is still ultimately a patriot.  Taine meets with him, thinking he is just crazy but soon discovers the plot is real.  Adventure ensues.

This took place almost entirely in England, including a finale around the cliffs of Dover, which was quite a neat location.  Smugglers used it for centuries and there secret caves, leading into a cliff house were part of their escape plot (with Taine's kidnapped children, natch).

The politics are a little disturbing, as a lot of semi-innocent people get killed and Pink is ultimately exonerated, with Taine helping get him back into Britain.  It's all a pat on the back for the old boy, who finally threw politics to the side and went back to being a good gentleman boater.  Household easily excuses his fascist past and his nasty anti-semitism because he is on the right side and, I suspect, a gentleman.  Yuck.  Still, a good yarn and I would not mind stumbling across the prequel "A Rough Shoot".

Monday, October 07, 2019

71. Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan

Some credit to the success of Lois Duncan's books back in the day has to go her publisher and the person who did the cover illustrations.  They were always so freaky.  This one is a classic.  My six year-old daughter was drawn to it "Daddy why does she look like that on one side but looks scary in the mirror?"  To be fair, this scene doesn't actually happen in the book and even as a metaphor only loosely captures the plot and that is stretching things.  But who cares, it's freaky and makes you want to read the book.

This is not to underplay Lois Duncan's work.  She was huge back in the day and having re-read this I think she needs to get more recognition when it comes to the various works of art and cultural influences that are driving today's Stranger Things 80s nostalgia boom.  Lois Duncan books are classics of late 70s and early 80s teens on their own against a supernatural power with ineffectual unbelieving parents.  They also capture a white, residential (suburban but where there were still neighbours you could walk to) idyllic community that doesn't exist anymore today and was dying for disruption at the time (and probably was being threatened by social change already thus all the anxiety).

In Summer of Fear, Rachel is a normal 15 year-old in Albuquerque with her loving middle-class family and best friend and old neighbour friend/new boyfriend about to begin a lovely summer when the family learns that her mom's sister and her husband have died, leaving behind their only daughter.  The daughter comes to live with them and is not what she expected.  As her distrust of Julie grows, everybody else grows more and more enamoured by her and it is Rachel who starts to become the difficult outcast.

The atmosphere and the writing style never allow it to get truly dark, though the stakes are real enough.  It's tense but wasn't actually scary to me (although got close in a part or two).  I think part of the issue was that as I was reading it, I remembered it from my distant past and the surprise seemed totally obvious to me.  Maybe it wasn't so obvious back in the day or to an adolescent reader (though they usually are the most astute to these kinds of things).  It also has a fascinating subtext, though only lightly touched upon, about privilege.  The backstory here comes right out of the classic American fear of the redneck/hillbilly as Joe Bob Briggs breaks down so well in his "How Rednecks Saved Hollywood" lecture.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

70. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cooke

How nice is this.
I found this beautiful Penguin paperback at a garage sale on Rachel.  Unfortunately, somebody in the past scrawled the price with a grease pencil, marring its elegance (I will try to clean it with lighter fluid successfully cleaned it and it is fucking gorgeous and you can't have it!).  The film of this book has been on our radar for a while, but I was too scared to see it.  My wife watched it a while ago and quite liked it.  So I was torn whether or not to read the book first or buck up and watch the movie.  The book came first, which seems appropriate.  She will read the book next so we can compare how the order informs our viewing/reading of each.

The book was great.  It's not as harsh as I thought, more sad and desperate than cruel.  It's kind of Australian lost weekend, about a young man who makes some bad choices and gets (or allows himself) to be carried along until he hits near rock bottom.  My fear about the movie (and somewhat about the book) was general worry about cruelty and sadism, neither of which I am a big fan.  The Australian angle added to that.  I am not scared of Australia because of its dangerous wildlife and climate but rather the reputation of its people.  Mad Max, Wolf Creek and an Australian exchange student in my senior year of high school who overflowed with testosterone and seemed to have zero moral principles all have built up a reputation of an outback filled with Sheila-abusing rednecks. 

What made this book interesting and a pleasant surprise is that almost all the people in the book are actually quite friendly and generous.  I can't tell if Cooke is critiquing the people of rural Australia (the West, as it is called here) or the protagonist, who seems to dislike them so much.  There is a constant contrast between his loathing of the environment and desperately wanting to get back to civilized and relatively temperate Sydney and how much pride and pleasure the locals seem to have with their hometown.  Grant, the protagonist, blurs his dislike for the wasteland with his dislike for the people.  To me, this seemed like a bourgeois snobbery, as they kept being super generous to him and super non-judgemental.  Yes, all they do is drink constantly, massacre kangaroos and seem to have loose sexual mores but there is only one slightly selfish character in the book.

Wake in Fright does capture that "you are here now" moment of a man whose life has spiraled out of his control in pretty awesome fashion. Driving around the outback in the back seat of a big cadillac, stuffed between beefy Joe and a kangaroo-hunting greyhound, drunk out of his mind, with loaded rifles pointed all over the place, Grant is certainly living.  Everybody else but him (and the kangaroos) are having fun.  While exhilarating and frightening in the moment, that is the kind of experience people now manufacture.  For Grant, it is a horror that he wants to get out of but can't.  I think he is the one who comes off looking bad here.

This description of the characters of Western Australia in this book is inaccurate and pejorative.

Friday, October 04, 2019

69. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

I always find dipping back into contemporary science fiction (and sometimes fantasy) sort of a refresher that lets me keep up my reading pace and breaks up too much mid-twentieth century fiction.  Newer books tend to be cleaner and shinier, with lots of space on the page and often formatting and delivery techniques that make it easy to plow through.  My wife got this from a work colleague and while she wasn't super enthusiastic, I did want to read it because the writer is from Quebec.

The premise is really cool and it starts off intriguingly.  A young girl falls into a hole in the woods near her house and discovers a gigantic hand surrounded by panels covered in strange symbols, all made of some impossible metal.  Later, she grows up to become the lead scientist on the super secret government project to research this hand.   Two blackhawk pilots accidently discover the arm and we soon learn that there is probably all the pieces of what must be a giant super high-tech robot scattered and hidden throughout the globe.

This is the first of the trilogy and is about the team that hunts down the pieces, puts them together and tries to figure out how it works and where it came from.

The book is written as a series of interviews and transcripts of conversations, detailing what happened before.  The interrogator is some faceless operator working for some super vague organization that seems to be above presidential power, yet also somehow weirdly limited.  It's odd.  The narration technique is interesting, but I am not sure it helps or hinders the story.  At times, it felt awkward, with a lot of exposition in the kinds of conversations where there wouldn't normally be that kind of explaining of what happened.  It felt forced.  The book moves along quickly, though, so it wasn't a huge flaw.

Worse, though, was just some of the internal logic.  It may be that the author was gunning for a movie from the beginning, but there is some simplistic interpretation of how governments would behave and worse behaviours by characters that seem to be there just to make a neato plot idea.  In particular, the love triangle which ends up in a guy's legs getting amputated that is just all too convenient so he can have the special prosthetic legs needed to move the robot.  Just way too convenient and the sudden burst of crazy violence by the jilted character came out of nowhere.  The way the politics worked just didn't seem realistic at all.  It's too bad, because the premise is really cool and where that part goes is quite neat.  It's just that all the plot and characterization around it felt at a kind of 80s tv show level of sophistication. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

68. The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

I was disappointed by this novel.  I actually was under the impression that it was the first book of hers that I had read (I got her name confused in my mind with Dolores Hitchens, for whom I still search) and was thinking this may be the last of this author I read.  Then when I finished it, I read her bio and realized that I had read Ride the Pink Horse and The Expendable Man and found them both excellent.  The So Blue Marble is Hughes' first novel, so I can excuse its flaws and recognize her evolution as a writer.  Phew!

Now that my own confusion has been cleared up, let's go into the book itself.  It starts out great, in medias res as a woman is walking to a destination in Manhattan she is suddenly and subtly accosted by two attractive collegiate-looking young men who politely but firmly lead her to where she is going and seem to know her.  The uncertainty from the perspective of the woman (and the protagonist as we learn) is palpable and you really want to learn what is going on.  However, quite quickly you realize the protagonist and narrator herself is unreliable.  The location she is heading to is her ex-husband's apartment that he is lending her, but the way it is written all this is unecessarily shrouded in mystery.  The young men, who turn out to be sadistic upper-class twins (though one has dark hair and the other light), are looking for a marble that she claims not to know about.  She also claims in her thoughts not to know about it, but then a few chapters later, she does know about it actually.  Her motivation for cooperating with these sadists is poorly founded.  She is scared of them, which is fair, but doesn't tell her ex-husband who is some kind of journalist but also later we learn a tough guy working for an elite anti-spy department of the government, because she fears for him.  It's very contrived and leads to more unecessary murders all of which could have been prevented if she had just told everybody what was going on.  They also break into a bank super easily and the cops seem to be really bad at investigating murders.

The plot holes and unconvincing characterization undermined what was sometimes quite creepy, especially her strained family dynamics.  Overall, though, this felt forced to me and I am glad it was the third of her books that I read, otherwise she would have dropped low on my list if not off altogether.