Sunday, December 20, 2020

66. The Two-Headed Serpent by Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward and Matthew Sanderson

There has been a bit of a slowdown in traditional book reading here at Olman's Fifty.  Normally, I tend to crank it up in the xmas holidays, at I am at my parents which is very conducive to reading (not near my own computer, often times everybody is reading).  This year, having been an exceptionally busy one at work and having xmas at our own immediate family this year and me buying two new videogames, I am just generally taking a break from concentrating too hard.  The Two-Headed Serpent is a campaign for the Call of Cthulu tabletop role-playing game.  So definitely reading, but much easier to consume in small bites, as it is divided up into several different sub-adventures.

Once, when I was starting to really get into gaming (I had just discovered the incredibly rich world of RPGs outside of the big brand name game Dungeons & Dragons), I was at the Compleat Strategist in NYC, which was the big and really only tabletop RPG store in the city at the time.  I ran into a guy who was maybe 10 years older than I was who was asking about a few games.  He told me he used to play, but doesn't anymore but still buys RPG books for "non-linear fiction, you know."  I remember thinking that made a lot of sense, but was also a bit sad as you would just not get the same satisfaction of immersion and interaction from just reading these books as opposed to playing or running them.  And yet here I am, twenty odd years later, picking up game books with the almost sole intention of just reading them.  I do have a tiny hope to run something again.  It's just that there is so much material and so little opportunity and in the end I'll probably just make my own thing up as usual.

I'm not a big Call of Cthulu guy.  I am a huge fan of pulp gaming, though.  Together, they make a very nice mix. The pulp element elevates the Call of Cthulu setting out of its depressing (to me) death/insanity spiral base play and allows the players to go in half-cocked and blasting.  And the mythos world gives an endless possibility of conspiracies and bad things all over the world for pulp adventurers to go investigate and fight.  The Two-Headed Serpent sets the players are being hired by Caduceus, a global philanthropic organization that sends doctors and scientists to help crisis situations around the world.  I won't give any more away in case anybody is going to play it, but of course shit is not what it seems.  Lizard people are involved.

 

[warning some tabletop RPG nerdery/inside baseball talk in the paragraph below.]

Overall, it is extremely well put together.  It is a beautfully-produced book.  The adventures are in diverse and fun situations (chases through the crammed streets of Calcutta, disease outbreak in the Belgian Congo, mafia wars in NYC, expedition to Iceland and that's about half of them!).  The back story is well thought out and the badguys and other NPCs are a great mix.  My only hesitation to move this from really good to great is that it is all a bit old school.  Absolutely nothing wrong with the old school and while I vacillate, I am probably actually pretty old school myself at this point.  It's just that the overall timeline is basically a railroad.  I know that is hard to avoid with a long campaign in this vein. I just feel like there are innovative ways to present this material so that it is much more freeform and dynamic, which would allow the players more agency in the way things unfold, while still moving the campaign into all the great material provided here.  The few options are presented here as basically if then statements and they really ultimately only shift the order of things somewhat.  Likewise, there is no real connection set up between the material and the players.  So basically, their motivation is "you were hired by this organization to do some stuff".  If I were to run this, I think I would do some kind of hook-building process where I got the players to come up with two connections their character would have to something in the campaign setting.  I just find when they have those things, they tend to be much more motivated (or you just make the main bad guy kick their ass right at the beginning :) ).

Anyhow, really fun to read and would be great fun to play or run one day.    


 

Saturday, December 05, 2020

65. Le chat du rabbin by Joann Sfar


I am always ready to read anything by Sfar but le Chat du Rabin was always low on the list for me.  My wife bought a copy of the first one in english and it was kicking around the house, so that got me started.  I got the next 7 volumes in french from the library here.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly what this bande-desinnée is about, as it can meander in many different directions. It's more of a cast and characters and a milieu thematically centered on Judaism and the philosophy of religion, with each album taking on a different story or concept and even then not always distinctly.

It takes place mostly in Algiers in the beginning of the 20th century (30s I think?).  The main character is the titular rabbi's cat, though he is more of a commentator, shit-stirrer and court jester.  The rabbi and his friends and family are the characters who tend to have stories and conflicts, while the cat observes or pokes and prods.  He's a real shit-stirrer, this cat, and it is even suggested at times that he may be the devil.  I think these characters may actually be Joann Sfar's ancestors, but I have not confirmed this.  It`s enjoyable reading, though arguments about religious theory are really not my jam and I did skim or glaze over those parts somewhat.  The characters, the milieu and the situations are absorbing and a compelling mix of semi-realistic history and geography and Sfar's slightly fantastical embellishments (such as a cat who can talk).

I have to mention Sfar`s art.  I prefer a hard, solid line, the empiricist that I am.  Sfar`s style is not usually to my liking, but boy does he capture real things in his loose way.  In the third or fourth volume, there is an actual photograph of Bahomet, the real life Sfar family cat that he based the character on and it`s uncanny how he captured the cat.  Likewise, the rabbi's daughter Zbaya just seems super hot to me.  It's almost weird.

 


 



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

64. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I took this book out of the library (which we have been hitting hard now that my daughter is reading; man do I love libraries) because I found an R.L. Delderfield that is a prequel story of the life of Ben Gunn, one of the characters from Treasure Island.  I thought it was just some pirate book by him until I brought it home and read the back.  I had read Treasure Island as a lad and enjoyed it (though Kidnapped stayed with me longer for some reason).  I didn't want to read the Delderfield without really having a memory of Treasure Island.  

I had positive but not elevated expectations of reading Treasure Island as an adult. I thought it would be a fine tale as they say.  It surpassed my expectations.  It's a great book, a tight, exciting adventure that still lives up to its reputation as a classic, beyond its massive cultural influence.  Though it owes much to the popularity of castaway and pirate tales that preceded it, it really is Treasure Island that defined what we think of pirates today. Reading it again, one understands why. It combines innocence and real darkness in a perfect balance that makes it light and enjoyable to read but not trivial. The pacing is masterful, so that you really have a hard time putting it down, yet also let's you take a pause in nice places.  Finally, it is the characters and dialogue that really make it a masterpiece.  Long John Silver and the disturbing father/monster/victim relationship he has with young Jim Hawkins is at the heart of it. Several side characters add richness without getting in the way.  

This is definitely colonial history and its sins are woven into the story and setting.  The obvious racism only shows up at the end since there is really no other characters other than Englishmen.  The jolly class relationships are a tasty illusion that makes the whole thing palatable.  Just pointing these things out, as they should be critiqued, but for the astute reader none of it gets in the way in what is probably one of the best adventure books I have read this year and definitely in the top ten.  I read this to prep for the Delderfield, but I may have to take Kidnapped out of the library now.

Monday, November 23, 2020

63. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

I can't remember how we discovered these.  We got one and my daughter was hooked, so I have been taking the rest out from the library over the last few months.  It only take about half-an-hour to read one of them.  I've read them all plus the two Rowley Jefferson side books, so I figure I can count it as a single book (similar principle to a bande-dessinée series).  They are aimed at boys in elementary school.  I am not quite sure what it is about them that so appeals to my 8-year old daughter.  I suspect the format itself is a big part of it. They are books with illustrations with just enough balance of text and images to make them very easy to digest. The pictures themselves are nice, clean solid line drawings that have a lot of humour in them as well.  

Kinney has made a kajillion dollars from these books, so I will leave it to other experts to figure out why they are so popular in any more detail.  I found them to be quite fun and very enjoyable to consume aesthetically speaking (I even stole some of the character images for a presentation for work).  I get a chuckle and sometimes a belly laugh at least once a book and there are a few truly hilarious moments.  Perhaps the standout for me is in book 14 with the epic neighbourhood snowball fight when the weird forest inbred children come and join.  

 The portrayal of the mother is somewhat problematic. She is always both the overly strict punisher in the family and the lone enthusiast who is always forcing them to do "family activities" nobody wants to do. Now, to be fair, I suspect Jeff Kinney grew up around the same time I did and whatever patriarchal structures were in place then and probably responsible, the truth at the time was that a lot of moms really were like this.  However, that has changed significantly and I feel like this series is perpetuating and reinforcing a stereotype that we can all move on from.  The dad is feckless and selfish, but his passivity is never portrayed as being such a negative element in Greg's life. You could also argue that everybody is kind of awful in these stories (except sweet, innocent Rowley), but it still feels like the brunt of the parody is thrust upon the mother character.




Monday, November 16, 2020

62. It by Stephen King


Whew!  Epic!  I have been looking for It for quite a while now, but would only read a used paperback copy.  These are actually quite hard to find, especially after the latest movie came out.  I did finally discover this really beat-up copy (not the ideal cover, but I am not complaining) in the big book dump in my alley last summer.  While I was still looking for it, I made the mistake of watching the first installment of the new movie.  When it came out, I hadn't been that interested in it, but the trailer for the second installment was so good (the one where she is visiting the old lady) that it made me want to give the two films a chance.  That was a huge mistake.  The first movie fucking sucked.  They had all this money and now we live in an era where it is okay (and even desirable) to actually tell the story and instead they ruined it like so many of Stephen King's properties. This one just devolved into tired repetitions of the way clowns could be freaky with only the smallest hints of the true storyline of the kids friendship and the evil that is the town of Derry.

The purity of my reading the book was thus somewhat spoiled by having seen the movie, as it imprinted some imagery, especially that of Pennywise and Beverly.  Fortunately, the rest of it was mostly forgettable.  I had also started reading It right at the end of my big Stephen King phase and then abandoned the book.  I just wasn't interested at the time.  My memory told me that I had only read a few pages before giving up, but I was 100 pages in and still remembering stuff, but couldn't tell if that was from the movie.  Finally at some point, I realized I had definitely not read it and could just enjoy the book.

I consider It to be the last of the early and for me best phase of Stephen King's writing. This could be erroneous, but it felt like after It he started going into more literary territory and doing things like The Dark Tower series.  I was always into his more adventure/sci-fi than his horror books.  Firestarter and The Dead Zone (and of course The Stand) were my favourites.  It is definitely mostly in the horror category but it gets pretty cosmic near the end.  There is a lot going on and it is a long book.  I am too lazy to fully and fairly analyze it.  I will say that I mostly enjoyed it and loved some parts of it enough to remind me why I was so into his books as a teenager. It's a bit long at times, especially in the early part.  There is so much horror in it, that it starts to get a bit not scary.  I am not into horror that much anyways, but I think the gruesome child murders could have been brought out a bit more slowly.  As it is, you are barely a third of the way in and you know there is a killer clown ripping lots of kids apart. The sexual and racial politics are questionable and interesting.  I think we can mostly give King a pass here as he was really trying.  The one black character, Mike the librarian, has some Magical Negro elements, but is also a fully-fledged character (though still getting somewhat second billing in the final action given his importance to the plot).  Beverly is really great as a kid, but somewhat weird as an adult, the abuse victim pattern doesn't feel entirely realistic (though the abusive husband does and is one of the scariest characters in the book).  There is also a super weird part in the end when they are kids that I am just not smart enough to unpack but seems somehow very wrong to me.  

Overall, though, the portrayal of this nasty town takes this book to the next level.  Stephen King knows America and though the evil here is from elsewhere, the manifestation it takes in Derry, Maine is all American and all too relevant today.  The real evil here are the racists, the bullies, the abusers and worse of all, the people who look away when it is all going on.  King describes the history, the geography, so many people, the establishments, the weather, everything to such a degree that I feel like the town should be findable on Google Maps and Wikipedia.  And he just savages it.  One wonders about his own childhood. He seems to know the darkness in small town America all too well.  And this is Yankee Maine!

As I mentioned when complaining about the shit movie, It is fundamentally about childhood friendship and before it gets really weird, this is the second-strongest part in the book. Each character and their confused perspective on their world is well written and when they start to find some salvation in each other, it is really quite moving. The part where fat Ben escapes from the bullies and meets Bill and Richie and then helps them build a dam and is blown away when they ask him to come and hang out with them is especially touching.  

Accomplishment achieved and thoroughly enjoyed! 


Now that is a well worn paperback!


Friday, October 30, 2020

61. Famous Trials 5 edited by James H. Hodge

This is the last of the Famous Trials Penguin paperbacks that I found at the Concordia book fair and bought almost out of pity and because they were just so beautiful.  Now, having finished this one, I find I am surprisingly pleased by their contents as well.  I would pick up any others that I may find in the future.  I can see why they were so popular.  Each one contains an essay, retelling of 4 or 5 famous trials.  They have a fairly consistent structure, beginning with a narrative of what actually happened, the ensuing investigation and then the trial.  They conclude with the author's thoughts on some social, legal or philosophical aspect of the trial.  Basically, they are true crime for the discerning reader (said in a slightly self-mocking snobby voice) and interesting and enjoyable at their base just for the retelling of these various disturbing and sordid human tragedies.  It is the various authors' voices that elevates these essays to sometimes quite enjoyable reading places.

Famous Trials 5 has 5 essays and I will give a brief summary of each, mainly for my own future reference. Overall, this was pretty enjoyable, highlighted by the last essay that had particularly rich writing and some nice critique of British moralism.  A bonus was that there were several Canadian connections in these trials.  Quite a lot of poison and drug use as well.

Thomas Neill Cream
Cream was a ne'er do well doctor who studied at McGill at the end of the 19th century and then went to England. His thing was hooking up with women, trying to get them to take pills that he claimed were to abort any potential pregnancy but would usually kill them. He would then send anonymous blackmail letters to some other well-known person claiming that he had evidence that they had poisoned the person.  It was all incompetent and kind of crazed, driven I guess by money needs, due to his addiction to "morphia" and his own misogyny.  

Neville George Clevely Heath
This charming fellow was recently demobbed and met two different women and horribly sexually tortured them then murdered them.  What was weird about his story is there was nothing in his past to indicate that he might become a sexual sadist. He was, however, a total cad and career criminal, getting kicked out of several armies and involved in many petty crimes.  This was one of the least interesting essays because it went on for pages and pages about how to define if someone is criminally insane (as his defense tried to do) and when to use it to excuse the death penalty.  As an empiricist, I don't really care about these kinds of arguments, though I recognize their value in making life or death decisions.

John Watson Laurie
Two young men meet on holiday in Scotland and go on a hike where one bashes the other with a rock to the head and then takes his stuff.  This was another truly incompetent murder where the killer returned home wearing the victim's clothing, among other sloppy actions.  This was more interesting for the history and geography of the Isle of Arran, which sounds incredibly beautiful.

Dr. George Lamson
A drug-addicted (and thus money desperate) doctor poisons his poor crippled 18-year old brother-in-law to get his inheritance.  This one was really quite sad because the boy, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal defect, was quite loved by his housemates at a boarding school. He already had a tough row to hoe but seemed to keep up good spirits.  His death was agonizing and took hours.  The uncle once in prison and off the dope later realizes it was the addiction that drove him to do it and though not truly remorseful, you do get a feeling that it was just a shitty business all around.  

Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse
This essay was the gem of the book, so I add the author's name in case I should run across it again. It was written in a particularly enjoyable style. The author really had fun with it, including a hilarious letter from Benjamin Franklin (see image below) on the advantages of having an affair with an older woman.  The story here is that Mrs. Rattenbury, a woman in her thirties and married to Mr. Rattenbury, a wealthier man in his sixties, starts to have an affair with their 18-year old chauffeur, Stoner.  The latter becomes infatuated and kills old Mr. Rattenbury by hitting him in the head three times with a mallett.  It was portrayed in the media at the time as a classic affair murder and initially Mrs. Rattenbury tried to take the fall for young Stoner. She was aquitted and he did life but she killed herself not long after the trial by stabbing herself in the heart six times (!).  The essay is very sympathetic to her and portrays her as a bit unbalanced, but actually very loving. According to the author, the arrangement itself while the affair was going on was not even that bad of a situation.  Mrs. Rattenbury was very kindly and loving the Mr. Rattenbury, who was more concerned with his business and his nightly bottle of whiskey. He didn't seem to mind the affair. It was just the melodramatic nature of an 18-year old working class boy suddenly thrust into a grown-up love affair that turned it deadly.  Everybody suffered.  Quite sad, but very enjoyably written.


I draw your attention to the Fifth point





Monday, October 26, 2020

60. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Robin Buss translation)

Found this hefty tome in one of those neighbourhood free shelves.  I had been wanting to read it since I saw the Jim Cazaviel movie (actually before that, but the movie cemented it from a fancy to a determination) and was happy to find this nice Penguin edition.  It turns out to be the most recent (and possibly most complete) translation in English.  I could probably have read it in french, but only if I were myself imprisoned in the Chateau d'If for 14 years.  As it was, the english edition of 1,243 pages took me almost 3 weeks!  

As the translator states in the introduction, Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books that was so popular that almost everybody knows something about it, without actually knowing it all.  The basic story is so compelling, that its impact is felt without needing the entire text (and reinforced by past incomplete translations and the many TV, movie and theatre adaptations).  I myself had a few misconceptions.  I was trying to figure out why it was so long, when he gets out of the prison within the first 200 pages.  The parts that I was most interested in, the endless training and self-improvement montage, are actually quite curtailed and even absent from the book.  He does educate himself mentally and gets a bit of aristocratic bearing while in prison, but the origins of all the combat skills, poisons, finance and the myriad other abilities that make him almost god-like are never explained beyond that he spent ten years in "the orient".  Much of the book is the more complicated narratives of the social and political lives of the families of the men upon whom he is seeking revenge and the slow, delicious unraveling of the count's revenge plot.

I got a bit confused in the early part of that, with several daughter's and wives who at first are not well distinguished as characters.  As the plot moves forward, though, and things get stickier, I figured it all out.  It's a real page-turner.  You can imagine when it was serialized how people would have awaited anxiously for the next chapter.  A lot of shit goes down and it gets quite dark and nasty.  There is even a cool lesbian cross-dressing escape from the constraints of Parisian aristocratic society.  I have to say, as well, the French really were fucking bonkers.  Their class system and its obsession with shame and duelling and all that really do make the 19th century British seem kind of staid and boring.  I guess the revolution and all the turmoil that followed it contributed to that.  This book definitely made me want to better understand that period of history.  It's just so complicated, Jesus, with so many revolutions and restorations and everything open to interpretation of the time.  No wonder historians still argue about it today.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

59. Plunder Squad by Richard Stark


This is a very auspicious moment in the life of my 50 book blog.  With the completion of Plunder Squad, the 59th book of 2020, I have now finally recuperated my losses from the early child-rearing years and restored my overall average to 50 books a year.  I almost lost the trail entirely in 2016 with a record low of only 18 books read (and looking back a 4 year-old averaging 3-5 major meltdowns a week was probably the biggest factor, though there were several others) and may have even blogfaded altogether.  I don't know what pulled me back but I am glad I stuck with it as reading has never been more enjoyable.

I wrestled for about 24 hours with which book should I read for #59 and I realized that I had also been re-reading the Parker series and Plunder Squad was next.  It's actually quite perfect since these are my favourite books and probably anchor most of my online interactions in the reading world.

What an absolute joy!  It has been long enough, and I think I only read Plunder Squad once, that I had forgotten almost everything about it.  The structure is multi-faceted and it lacks a central narrative, so aesthetically, I do not rank it high amongst the best Parkers.  Yet it is so full of Westlake as Starkian goodness and so hard at its core that I can still understand how others may consider it among his best.

Plunder Squad starts, as always, in medias res, with Parker getting shot at from behind while planning a heist in an anonymous house. The shooter is George Uhl, whom Parker left alive at the end of The Sour Lemon Score. The first half of the book is more like a series of short vignettes of Parker trying to put together jobs while also dealing with Uhl.  The second half is a truncated, traditional Parker heist where we get the planning, the perspective of some of the side characters and finally the execution.  The ending is whatever the opposite of in medias res is, with Parker barely escaping a doublecross, fleeing a burning warehouse in Soho.

There are several great moments.  The scene when he is waiting out George Uhl in the California hills after having second-guessed the other guy who led him to Uhl who now knows Parker is probably going to kill him.  Just sad and brutal and yet so efficient.  The final heist here is really cool as well in all its details.  They hijack a truck full of valuable paintings while it is being escorted from one gallery to the other in the midwest.  I love Tommy the hippy heister.  Also this one has Stan Devers, mainly anonymous but still likable.  I'm rambling.  Plunder Squad is fantastic.  And finally, this:

Lou Sternberg met Parker at O'Hare International. He had a disgusted look on his face, but he gave the standard greeting:  "Have a good flight?"

"Yes." Parker meant nothing by the word; it was simply a sound that ended the topic.

Next up, Butcher's Moon, the masterpiece.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

58. The Foundling by Georgette Heyer

I found the worst edition
I do follow some good people on Twitter in the book world, so good that it is one of the big reasons I haven't been able to delete my account and walk away.  Fans of the gothic and romance genre were talking up Georgette Heyer and how big a role they played in their own early reading.  Her stuff sounded right up my alley and I was pleased to find a copy for $2 at Chainon with a truly uninspired design, such that I would have no worries of my poor treatment of the book.

I am pleased to say that their recommendations were spot on.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Foundling.  It was delightful.  I found myself delighted from the first few pages and continuously delighted throughout the book.  I would have read it in two days if it wasn't for current events and my struggle with distraction. As it was I basically read it in two sittings but with days of wasting my life on Twitter and reading only a few pages at a time in between.

The story is about a young Duke who grew up quite sickly and though petite of frame is healthy and smart at the age of 24, about to come of age and claim his inheritance.  However, his controlling uncle and the retinue of staff conspire to mollycoddle him.  His own gentle and unaggressive nature only reinforces their maintaining a layer of protection between him and the world.  He yearns to live a bit in the world and his frustration with his uncle and servants reaches a peak when he is basically browbeaten to ask his old friend Harriet's hand in marriage.  They grew up together and he likes and respects her, but never really had a chance to develop any feelings.  When one of his cousins gets in a bit of a scrape with a blackmailer and asks the Duke for money, he decides to escape from his handlers and deal with the problem on his own.

There are so many things that I enjoyed in this story: the mannered interactions of the aristocracy, the talented and trained but never tested character off on his own, descriptions of Regency england at once so civilized and yet always simmering with potential villainy.  Ultimately, though, what really made this book for me was how it pleasant and un-tense it all was.  The bad guys really aren't all that bad, the scandals never really threaten to ruin anybody and the plot twists and miscommunications are fun and move the story forward without driving us mad.  Just a real tonic.  I am so happy to know that she has written some 60 books and everyone has their various favourites.  I think I will just keep an eye out for her and pick them up slowly, as I am sure used copies are easy to find.  They can be read between more stressful works. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

57. The Duplicate by William Sleator

Meezly lent this to me, a beautiful hardback version that she found at Dark Carnival.  She had bought it as a gift for my nephew but decided she wanted to read it first.  I had never read it, but I really feel like I must have read some of his books before.  They really look like the kinds of books I would have taken out of the library when I was in my early adolescence.  The story here is about a teenage boy who stumbles upon a strange device on the beach near his house.  He is in a bit of a dilemma because he has finally gotten a date with the cute girl in his class that he has a crush on (to help her with her math homework) but he forgot that he is supposed to go to his grandmother's birthday at the same time that evening.

He sees a seagull poke at the device and suddenly a second seagull appears.  Not sure what he saw, he takes the device home and starts testing it out and ends up with a copy of himself.  At first it seems like the solution to his double-booking but very quickly the logistical problems make having a second version of himself more trouble than benefit.  What clothes will they wear?  Who is going to eat dinner?  Who goes to school and where does the other one go.  Even more difficult, who gets to go on the date and who has to go to grandma's birthday party.

It's a quick read and aimed at adolescents, but it really does explore the issue to its peak and things get pretty dark.  I am sure there are equivalent books for young adult readers today, but I feel like a lot of them are quite safe.  Hunger Games, Harry Potter, they are all in a fantasy world.  Books like The Duplicate force you to ask yourself what you would do if you suspected your duplicate was actually plotting to kill you.  It's good.  I also like that the girl in the end is quite level-headed and cool.  A nice little interim read.  Now we will send it on to the nephew.  

Yes, reading his obituary, I do think I had read some of his earlier books. They sound really intriguing.

Friday, September 25, 2020

56. The Jook by Gary Phillips

I picked this up on a whim at S.W. Welch.  It looked pulpy, the protagonist was African-American and an a pro football player.  I am still buying too many books and my on-deck shelf literally floweth over (or stacketh upwards).

The protagonist is Zalmont Raines, an once star wide reciever in the NFL who had caught a superbowl-winning touchdown pass and had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  At the start of the book, he is arriving at LAX, coming back from Europe where had just been cut from the Barcelon Dragons because of his gimpy hip.  We learn soon that he partied way too hard and much of his big salaries was gone.  He was also being chased by a baby momma (I don't think this term was around when this book was written in 1999) and a potential lawsuit for statuatory rape after getting a blowjob from a 16-year old girl in a wheelchair.  His goal is to get a spot on the LA Barons, the new expansion team in his hometown.

Zalmont is a selfish, cold person.  The book walks a thin line, you do sympathize with him but you also are constantly reminded what an asshole he is.  It's never an excuse, but the cuthroat nature of professional football and his own upbringing, are definitely present as factors in his behaviour.  The language is rich and there are lots of nerdy references.  Furthermore, the story keeps moving forward.  Nevertheless deep down, it is a pretty bleak book.  Call it black noir.  This is grown-up stuff.  Lots of sex and violence.  The final climax, a heist of a garbage truck would make a great action movie.

Some of the writing was a bit clunky, with abrupt transitions and the wrong balance of exposition.  Also, some of the dialogue sounded too similar among different characters.  There would be a tendency to speak in the vernacular and then in more nerdy, explanatory english.  However, as I said before, the story really keeps moving forward, there was a lot of action and you kind of dig the arrogant, son-of-a-bitch elite wide receiver. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

55. A New Kind of War by Anthony Price


Anthony Price has been on my radar for a long, long time, dating back to when Louis XIV did an excellent series of interviews with him.  I have held off for all these years because I suspected his books might be not right for me.  I didn't know how but I have enough to read that it did hold me back until I saw one of his book last month at S.W. Welch.  The opening paragraph really worked for me and I was in need of something to kickstart my reading again.

Wow, was this a slow burn.  I mean perhaps the slowest burn of any espionage book I have ever read.  I couldn't even figure out what the plot was until page 300 of 362!   The basic set up is that Fred Fattorini, Captain in the British Army encounters a strange unit in Greece at the end of the Second World War.  He is then sent to join that unit in Germany where they are ostensibly there to study Roman ruins uncovered by recent bombing.  Even figuring out what I just typed there takes pages and pages of dialogue all done in this halting, interrupting style where Fattorini is constantly guessing as to what is actually going on and nobody will tell him anything but the slightest fragments of information.  It is actually quite frustrating and made it hard for me to get through this book, especially at a time when I needed some easy comfort reading to get my stamina back up.

The thing is, it's not bad.  It's actually really quite good.  It feels realistic, with complex and nuanced portraits of how the old boy network and class structure informed the makeup of the British army.  The descriptions of the surroundings are subtle and really give you flashes of a scene in your head (thus the seduction of the first paragraph).  Likewise the portrayal of the allies splitting up and fighting amongst themselves for the intel spoils of war as well as the various ethical and moral compromises that go with that are really well done. This is grown-up espionage, possibly too grown up for me.  You need to know your history and you need to be paying attention. 

By the end, it does all tie together in a pretty cool way.  It's one of those books where the ending is really cool because it sets the groundwork for more adventure in the future, but it doesn't feel like it has to actually tell those stories. Just the potential of it based on what came before makes it cool to read.  

Spoiler here (for my own memory when I go back to read this):  This is in some ways not a real spoiler because you could figure out a lot of it on your own and it is not a mystery per se, it's just that Price puts you in Fattorini's mind and part of the pleasure of the book is learning what the hell is going on through him.  The unit he is joined up with is tasked with finding and convincing German scientists to come to Britain to work with them.  They are rivals with the US and enemies with the Soviets in this task, and it comes out (and this is a real spoiler) that there is a traitor amongst them  The reason they are all so close-lipped and weird is because of this suspicion. Fattorini is brought in from the outside to suss the traitor out but they can't even tell him that directly until they know he is solid.  Ultimately, this book sets the stage for the cold war espionage that will dominate the decades after the war, thus the title.  Oh I see, it really is an origin story as characters from this book (which was written near the end of his career) are the younger versions of themselves in many of his earlier books.  Cool.

Friday, September 18, 2020

54. me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad

A bit of a step outside my usual reading habits, this book is a work assignment!  We are decolonizing (can't decide if  I should put that in quotes or not) at the organization I work for and one of the tasks we've been asked to do is to read this book and have discussions about it.  I am very much in favour of rooting out racism and discrimination and I as a reader was kind of excited to actually have a book club at work.  We are pretty much full on "radical lefty" anyways, so it's not a big stretch for anybody, though I did hear some grumblings about being assigned homework.  Some may see it as preaching to the converted but there is a real and deep structural problem in the non-profit world where it is pretty much educated, economically comfortable white people in a majority of the roles, especially in management.  On the positive side, there are a majority of women in those roles and I have seen that change over time.

The argument is, and I hope everybody is now aware of this is nothing new, but that we have to look at racism as a structural problem that goes far beyond just individuals being racist.  Even if we can make people not be racist, the way we educate and hire, the way the markets work, all these institutions join together in a social structure that makes it almost impossible to create a racially just society.  The racism gets reinforced sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly at every step in someone's life journey.  The black kid who is bored in school gets labelled a troublemaker and her parents who work in a low-income job don't have the time or resources to fight back and when they do they are labelled also as difficult. And thus the black kid doesn't get the same education (and are already disadvantaged because they live in neighbourhoods where their schools are less funded).

The target of me and white supremacy is more specifically at how we have internalized racist thinking (white supremacy as she labels it) because of all these structures and cultures around us.  The book is more like a self-help guide where you read a chapter, learn a new thing about white supremacy and then you are supposed to "journal" (that I will definitely put in quotes) and more importantly think and discuss deeply how you are racist and then work to root that out.  Chapters are on subjects like white fragility (how white people freak out when they get called on their racism and make it more about their pain), white silence (being against racism but not standing up when you see it in front of you), the way children are raised, the idea of being "colourblind" and so on.

As you can tell I am very much in favour of the goal of this book and so I don't want to think that the overall mission is not valid.  I also agree that the issues she brings up are real white people need to deal with them.  However, I do have several serious critiques of it. Primarily, it is very simplistic.  Both in the portrayal of the concepts and in the audience.  It really is a self-help book and so I understand why you are will only spend a few pages on what are incredibly rich and complex topics (again, when I say "complex" I don't mean some both sides argument bullshit, but that the history behind them and the mechanics of how they work are multi-faceted and vary depending on context; here is a one-size fits all that starts to undermine the validity of the overall argument).  She also has a very monolithic understanding of the white people she is talking to.  It feels like the only white people she knows are Nancy's she argues with on the internet.  Many of the questions you are asked are of the "have you stopped beating your wife" construction (for instance, "what have you learned about the dehumanizing ways you think about and treat BIPOC and why?").

After a while, it starts to feel like one of those terrible situations in college where you are surrounded by white upper middle-class east coast kids who are denouncing themselves and their bourgeois values, each competing to be more extreme and radical in unpacking their own class and race biases. And then in ten years they will all go on to be currency traders and homemakers in Greenwich, CT (this actually happened).  It all feels very culty.

There is a problem in general with this approach to white supremacy.  It assumes that all of us are already indoctrinated in it and we can't not be.  According to this book, we have all this hard work to do.  But at what point are we doing enough work to be free of white supremacy and who decides?  There is no option here for someone to say that they are doing the work and do not have white supremacist thinking.  So you either wait eternally for an external arbiter and meanwhile you live in constant guilt or you reject the premise altogether.  The first way leads to cult leaders and totalitarian thinking and the the other option makes you at best opt out or at worst be a total racist.  And even saying that would have people on the internet saying "see you are a racist!"

Maybe white supremacy is so deep that this is the only solution, but I can't help feeling there is a better way.  Again, all the concepts here are real and need to be fought against, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced approach and a recognition that there are many white people who are committed to anti-racism and really not approach the world with even the subtlest white supremacy thinking.

I think part of the problem with this book is that it has this unspoken foundation of 60s self-development ideas.  Those are great for some people, but not so great for others. It really wants us all to be in constant self-critiquing and development and to have all these emotional upheavals that help give us new clarity.  My mother is a therapist and her advice and perspective has been very good for me. I believe in personal development, but this method leaves me wanting, to say the least. There are a few sections of actual concrete work you can do to be anti-racist (supporting movements with money and time in the background, creating roles and opportunities in your job or organization, giving voices to BIPOC in situations where you have that power, etc.) and I would have found a book that emphasized those things to be much more helpful for me personally.  Maybe it is smart the way she did this book because she does seem to be going after white liberal women especially in the wellness field (which she mentions specifically several times) and they love that shit.

If you are someone who thinks racism is bad and that you are not a racist but maybe have some tiny doubts or have been confronted with accusations on the internet that angered you but you didn't really have a defense, I would recommend this book for you. Just be ready to not get defensive.  She really lays it out clearly what the issues are in a digestible way and it may open your eyes.

If you are fully on board with Black Lives Matter and all in in understanding structuralist racism and looking to deepen your knowledge and tactics, I would suggest you look elsewhere.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

53. Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki


I am fairly well versed in the Second World War and in particular the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the wars leading up to it.  I studied it in college and then much of my fictional reading and some non-fiction has been in this area.  Not to say I am some expert, but that the reality of Hitler and the Nazis versus the mythology does not come as something new to me.  That is a bit how this book is marketed and I hope that for some readers it would be elucidating in that fashion.

It really is a straight-up history, mostly a biography of Hitler himself.  It's very well done, going into a surprising amount of detail in such a rushed history.  Because it is a manga and there is very little exposition, a lot goes on in a few pages.  I suspect that for people totally new to the history, a lot of it might go past them and many of the character fade in and out. There are two nice little indices, one a roster of characters with illustration and the other a list of endnotes that go into more detail. Somehow, the combination of dark, sketchy, impressionistic but realistic backgrounds with the manga-ish cartoony expressions of the characters (toned down but nonetheless manga style) imparts a strong reality to the story.  The characters seem human.  This is what makes this book so effective.  It "humanizes" what happened, not in the sense that we realize these are complex people with feelings that we should feel sympathy for (there is little of that).  Rather that the rise of Nazi power and fascism in Germany was not some well thought out master plan but a series of complex interactions between the historical context and the individuals involved.  Grounding the narrative makes you realize that it really could happen anywhere, that there is no tradition or political structure so solid that it cannot be undermined or rot from within.

Of course in these times where an authoritarian takeover is happening in the United States right now leads to a comparison of the two situations.  There are so many differences that one feels it may be erroneously simplistic to compare them.  The situation in Germany (coming off of WWI, the crushed economy, the social and class structure not to mention technology) was wildly different than that of the US today.  It's probably more helpful to do broader comparisons of the rise of authoritarian regimes in general. The one big similarity, though, that stands out for me and is highlighted nicely in this book, is the complicity of the elites and business.  Hitler, as extreme and uncompromising as he portrayed himself, often backed down in the early days when faced with the threat of losing support from the big industrialists.  This kept them appeased (at best) and usually brought them onside when they saw how they could increase their monopolies.  Likewise, the upper classes, who detested Hitler's upbringing, consistently acquiesced to his power as they did not see him as a threat to them.  This is exactly what is happening with Trump now.  The editorial positions of the New York Times, normalizing his destruction of structures of American democracy with neutral headlines and constant "both sides" arguments will be seen in the future as one of the tools of propaganda that allowed him and his cronies to go as far as he did.

One thing that I did learn and am somewhat shamed of my ignorance is Shigeru Mizuki himself. He is, at least according to the biography, one of the most important figures in Japanese Manga.  He also did several history books on Japan's rise to the war and one about his own life as a soldier in WWII, where he lost an arm.  I would love to read those as well. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

52. Red Ketchup Integrale vol 3 (books 7-9)


7 Echec au King
This time Red Ketchup gets a new boss as his old is demoted after not being able to contain Red Ketchup.  The new boss is supposed to be one of the best, but it becomes clear quite quickly that he is too ambitious as he uses Red to get dirt on his superiors to gain more power.  He also is desperately in love with a fat trailer park woman and will do anything for her.  This is a theme we have seen a few times in Red Ketchup, the powerful man with the weakness for a woman far down on the social status.  Her thing is reading Amazing Facts, basically a News of the World tabloid and she uses her FBI boss lover to investigate the things she reads about (bigfoot, giant moles and eventually Elvis coming back from the dead).  He in turn sends Red to investigate who does so much damage that these fake stories start seeming real.  It all traces back to an alcoholic writer in the Florida Keys who is behind all the stories.  In some ways, this book is more his story and Red Ketchup is really just the catalyst, although there is also the grad student who comes down to interview the writer and the gallant next-door neighbour of the fat trailer park lady who seems vaguely familiar...

A lot goes on here.  This book reminded me a bit of one of the Parker stories where Parker is a vehicle for other character's narratives.  Come to think of it, you probably could do an interesting Parker/Red Ketchup comparison.  Echec au King doesn't capture the manic chaos of Red Ketchup at his best but it is still an entertaining story and another fun poke at American excess.

8 Red Ketchup en Enfer
(read May 12, 2020 during pandemic) This one was awesome, getting back to Red Ketchup stirring all kinds of shit up, this time literally in hell.  Red Ketchup dies saving some kids from a crazed cult leader in the bayou.  He takes an atomic bomb and runs with it on his back where it explodes.  He wakes up in hell, welcomed by the devil and all his demons.  Satan is so pleased to have Red Ketchup with him, he makes him the head of security for hell, where his extreme mania for order drives demons back to earth.  Meanwhile, Red's sister is sure he is calling to her and her search leads her to Dr. Beaudelaire Hyacinth, a Haitian professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal.   Dr. Hyacinth, it turns out, used to be a power voudou shaman but renounced his use of magic to study science.  Together the two of them head back to Haiti to try and find Red Ketchup and send the demons back to hell.  Even though we get classic Red Ketchup extremism, this is also just a really good story, well-structured and fun.  Dr. Hyacinth is an excellent side character, great NPC for anybody's modern occult campaign.
 
9 Élixir X
(read August 31, 2020, end of the pandemic summer) This final chapter (at least for now) in the Red Ketchup saga is an enjoyable story with some nice character development. However, it feels restrained and never achieves the chaos it sets up.  The main story centers on the insane Nazi doctor Otto Kunst who develops an elixir of life, which gets released into the public by his young model wife (who looks exactly like his true love the inflatable sex toy).  It makes people young, but also violently aggressive and addicted.  We really had the potential for some Red Ketchup mayhem but the storyline emphasizes Red Ketchup's attempt to find the assassins trying to kill his sister.  There are lots of nice touches and a pretty interesting development with the possibility of his sister becoming a second red ketchup.  A good read, but a bit mellow for Red Ketchup.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

51. Mad Ship (The Liveship Traders Book II) by Robin Hobb

Wow!  This has been the least productive reading month for me for a long time.  Still two days left, but pretty clear that I will fail to achieve my 5 books a month goal.  The last time I went below 5 books was May 2019.  I have many excuses.  The biggest factor is the NBA playoff bubble which was running 4 games a day for almost three weeks in August.  I also allowed myself to fall back into a lot of wasted time on Twitter.  Things will tighten up in September.

My lack of reading forces me to question my phat fantasy strategy.  Mad Ship keeps up all the good stuff from the Ship of Destiny, and because I am so deep into it now, I can read it in snippets.  She packs so much story in each chapter that sometimes I have to take a break.  So it would seem an ideal companion to the NBA playoffs. The problem is that about halfway through the month, I start to feel the pressure of not meeting my monthly goal (and slipping away from the ultimate goal of restoring my monthly average to 50).  It makes it hard for me to truly sit back and enjoy this deep fantasy universe and the enjoyable unraveling of its mysteries.

In Book 2, we get a lot more of the pirate Kennit.  He becomes almost mythical, though it is hard to tell if it is his own insane ego or that he may actually be an important, fated piece in all the machinations going on around him.  He takes Wintrow, the ex-monk to Sa, under his wing and with his consort Etta and their pirate crew, they set in motion several important triggers that will rock the world of Jamailla, Bingtown and the Rain Wilds.  Their piracy of slaveships accelerates the confrontation between Bingtown and the Satrap (with the Chalced States behind him).  On the big magical picture, Kennit pushes Wintrow into a situation where he releases a sea serpent that is key to the story of the tangle in the prologues to each chapter.  There seems to be a lot of destiny going on.  We also follow the storyline of the rest of the Vestrit family as they put the mad liveship Paragon to sea to rescue the Vivacia and her captain.  

The political conflicts in this second book were great, complex enough to make them interesting but not get lost.  Most of the magical backstory is revealed here and it is really cool.  At first, the mythology seemed so different than that of the first trilogy, that I thought they were going to be basically two separate storylines.  Here, at the end, the reveal connects them in a really interesting way that gives you a totally different understanding of the dragons in the Assassin trilogy.  It's very cool.

I overally really enjoyed it, but there is still some balance with Robin Hobb that sometimes makes me have to put the book down in frustration.  Her characters are often relentlessly pessimistic and whiny.  Sometimes it makes sense, but it always seems to get pushed too far.  And you know something bad is going to happen to them before any good stuff, so it can be demotivating.  She also relies on people's stubbornness and stupidity as a plot device and sometimes it really doesn't work. It's a small part, but when Reyn is drinking himself to sleep to avoid the dragon dreams and his brother and mom come to him and he tells them to find Malta, they just ignore him and treat him like a baby.  Yet, they all were raised understanding the danger and power of the old city.  They also know the situation is super dangerous.  They would at least have checked on Malta. I found that really unbelievable and frustrating and it threw me out of the book.

Friday, August 07, 2020

50. Out of Control by G. Gordon Liddy

I found this in one of the free book kiosks in the Mile-End.  I actually hesitated over it for quite a while.  This late summer, my thirst for book hunting knows no quenching.  However, my cup (as in my on-deck shelf) runneth over and I am reading quite slowly because of the NBA bubble.  I was not really feeling very enthusiastic about watching sports this year as it feels like we have much bigger issues in the world right now, but the condensed and accelerated season with all the teams quarantined in Disney World has actually made for some super entertaining basketball.  There are games on from 2 in the afternoon until 11 at night and it really cuts into my reading time.  So I hemmed and hawed on this book and finally took it because I mean come on a spy adventure novel written by one of the Watergate conspirators  How can I say no?  

And during the first chapter, I was rejoicing for my choice.  It starts in media res with a professional thief and safe cracker hiding in the custodial closet at the top floor of a NY office building.  We get a nerdy but very entertaining blow-by-blow of his break-in.  Liddy does not spare the technical details, right up to the brand of the cylinder being different than the brand of the rest of the safe.  Unfortunately, this is a peak and it kind of comes down to earth for much of the middle of the book, rising back up again for a crazy finale.  

Out of Control is an odd mix of almost dull technical and business procedure and then over the top situations and craziness.  There is a lot of 1970s orientalism, most of it made up and wildly inaccurate (though not disrespectful or belittling; just kind of fantastic) which is off-putting.  However, my grade 10 self would have loved it, as there are martial arts masters, secret Tong societies and even a climactic kung fu fight.  The hero is an absurd fantasy, the son of a Nazi Luftwaffe ace (and a pilot himself who still flies a messerschmidt recreationally, which of course figures in the finale), whose dead wife was from a powerful mafia family and whose current girlfriend is connected to a super powerful Tong enterprise.  He is also an expert financier.  The sexual and romantic banter between him and his girlfriend is tiresome and dated, but felt genuine.  We are failing all Bechtel tests here, but he does make her a real person.

I can not recommend this as a good book, but I found it likable, wanting to entertain and succeeding at many points.  There is a lot of self-congratulating business manipulations that went way too far into detail for me, but there are also a lot of great and creative action moments. And it does get genuinely crazy.  If you are a fan of 60s and 70s American crime and espionage fiction, you should check this out.

[Also minor golf clap for having reached 50 books.  My real goal for 2020 is 59 as I will then have achieved an average of 50 books since I started this challenge.  Then we'll have a real celebration!]

Friday, July 31, 2020

49. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

I picked this up for $5 at S.W. Welch in my first post-pandemic book shopping.  A really nice old paperback edition of a book I believe is considered a classic.  I'll research that after writing my review.  I struggle with these Golden Age science fiction books. I want to keep my mind open and try and approach them without the baggage of all the great sci-fi they spawned (in one way or another).  I remind myself that times were very different and we are still today unpacking deeply buried cultural assumptions.  Despite all that, I found myself struggling to enjoy the Demolished Man. 

It's the story of Ben Reich, big-time corporate leader in the 24th century future.  He decides to murder his business rival, D'Courtney.  However, murder is almost impossible in this age, thanks to the existence of espers or peepers.  They are people with esp, organized in a guild with strict ethis and rankings.  The book is about Reich's plan to commit this murder and then the investigation and hunt by esper detective Lincoln Powell.  So underneath all the science fiction stuff, it is basically a cat and mouse detective story.  Some parts of that story were kind of fun to read.  Likewise, as an early imagining of a how a society with psychics in it would work and the mechanics of planning and detecting murder in such a world were somewhat interesting.  However, there were lots of little logical flaws (like on Reich commits the first murder, which is supposed to be so impossible, he suddenly seems to have no trouble committing several others to cover up the first) that took me out of the reality.  The Ben Reich character seems almost hysterical in his desire to murder; his motivations are not convincing.  The final big psychological reveal at the end didn't have enough weight to it because there was nothing in the character to connect to the ending, nor to the reader.  So sort of fun, but I mainly read it to get through it. 

Apologies to those with the perspective that made this book enjoying.  I guess if I were in my 20s in the 50s, this may have been quite mind-blowing.  And it was Bester's first book.  Now to go find out how wrong I am.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

48. TV Noir: Dark Drama on the Small Screen by Allen Glover

When I first graduated from college, there was a period where either I was between jobs or working a retail job where I had some weekdays off.  In any case, I remember that The Fugitive was on some local channel everyday at noon.  I got to watch quite a few episodes.  It surprised me how dark and pessimistic it was, for a show from that time.  Twitchy-faced, hunted David Janssen always trying to do the right thing while keeping one step ahead of the relentless, amoral detective chasing him down for a crime he didn't commit.  I suspected at the time that The Fugitive was only one of a number of cool old TV shows that were no longer on the air.  TV Noir confirms it.  It came up on my twitter feed and I bought it for myself at Dark Carnival after nobody got it for me for xmas.  I've been reading chapters between completing other fiction books and just finished it today.

It's a beautiful coffee table book, with a long introduction about the transition from radio to TV and the many threads that connect the well-known world of noir in film to the lesser-known one in TV.  The big distinction in the early days of TV was that it was live and used really big cameras that would only work in a studio.  Many of people from the B studios that cranked out film noirs were used to produce the television shows.  Right from the beginning of television, crime was the main subject for fictional content.  That really hasn't changed today!

After the introductory essays, the bulk of the book is a review and analysis of noir and noir-adjacent TV shows, from the obvious ones like The Fugitive, to less obvious but convincingly connected by these essays, such as The Twilight Zone and Dragnet.  The real pleasure for me (and danger) is discovering many series that I had never heard of that sound really cool.  I Led 3 Lives (about a suburban husband who is actually an agent going undercover as a commie) and The Invaders (a guy who stumbles on a vast UFO conspiracy) in particular got me drooling.  Sadly, most of the live teleplays were never recorded and are gone forever and some of these sounded absolutely incredible.  The author found stills and scrips and reviews.  Many of them were evolutions of old time radio shows and I would love to have seen the dark, live television versions of them.

Physically, the book is beautiful with tons of photos.  Would look great on a coffee table if we had one.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

47. Night Dogs by Kent Anderson

I had been looking for this book for quite some time and finally gave in and bought it new.  I was under the impression that it had been written more recently and this was colouring my view of it as I read it. It had some minor narrative elements that felt a bit passé and even cliché (the partner on the verge of retirement who gets killed).  I was surprised to find that it was written in 1986.  Knowing that, I gave a lot more credit to the writer.  This is a book that was in many ways quite ahead of its time.  I am also annoyed that I gave in and bought it new.

It's the story of a vietnam vet, Hanson, who is now a patrol officer in early 70s Portland, Oregon.  You sympathize with him. He is not a racist, but he is a brutal, asshole abusive cop and African Americans get the majority of his asshole behaviour.  He works the North district, which is (or was) the industrial and poorer corner of Portland.  The cops who work there tend to be mavericks, action junkies or failures from the other districts.  Night Dogs walks a fine line with the protagonist.  He is brutal but also has a sense of fairness.  His behaviour is posited as a given, that this is what cops do.  It reminded me tons of The Wire and I wonder if David Simon had read this book.  It is pretty brutal and "unflinching" as they say and a strong argument for changing the way policing is done in America (even before police departments got massive budget increases, gifts of military hardware and an increasing radicalization in their culture).  Hanson is an asshole, though, and it is painful to see what he does to the people in the community he polices.

There is some minor plotlines that run through it, but ultimately this is much more about being a vietnam vet and a cop and what the day to day life is like.  I don't know if he exaggerated, either in the language or just the facts, but this book is pretty relentless: murdered dogs, abused children, rape, even a snuff film.  At times I had to take a break.  It's a well-written, engaging book, but not for the faint of heart.  Because plot is not the priority here (there is even a cop antagonist who is investigating Hanson that ends up fizzling away), the criticisms about the storylines didn't carry as much weight. I like that.

One criticism I did have is that Portland comes across as pretty generic. We spend most of the time in the poor parts of town, with some brief contrasts with the white liberals (including a college girl who is into kinky violent sex and is turned on by Hanson's aggression).  Portland is a really interesting city with a vibe all its own, on many levels.  Witness the huge protests going on right now against the cops.  This is more than just safe liberals who didn't see reality in 'Nam. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

46. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I guess this is or was considered a real-classic, at least according to the hype on this Canadian Pocket Books version I found at S.W. Welch.  I went in there after they had been re-opened for a couple of weeks and found this and two other paperbacks, for which I paid $25!  This pandemic has changed everything.  I needed something shorter before I get back into the second book of the Liveships trilogy. 

I was quite looking forward to a nice little murder mystery, written by a woman.  It started off in an entertaining fashion, with a dry, self-deprecating humour from the narrator and protagonist/detective, the old patrician aunt, Mrs Innes, who takes a large summer estate in the country.  Things go bad and scary right from the beginning as the help doesn't want to stay, they hear strange noises and wake up in the morning with a dead man in the billiard room. 

Unfortunately, early on too much of the mystery was maintained by main characters having secrets but refusing to talk. And these were clearly sympathetic characters, such as the niece and nephew of Mrs. Innes. There were also quite a few characters, many of whom appeared all of a sudden but were presented as if we should know who they were.  This all led up to me not feeling like making much of an effort to try and figure out what was going on. When the solution was finally revealed, it was convoluted, with several backstories that were filled out.  The ending was somewhat adventurous and there were a couple of good moments. The tone throughout of this mannered upper-class lady was entertaining, but not enough to make this "the most significant single advance in American crime and detective fiction since Edgar Allan Poe" as it says on the back.

There is also some casual yet pretty painful to read racism.  It is always in the dialogue of the characters and the black characters themselves are portrayed no better or worse than any of the other side characters, so I think it is fair to say that the racism here is very much a product of its time.  There is likewise a passive classism as well, but it is nowhere near as ugly and jarring.  Be aware.

As an artifact, the book is particularly cool and I will keep it.  The address for Pocket Books is 6306 Park and I rode my bike by there yestrerday.  That actuall address no longer exists, but I suspect it was in the same building that is currently 6300 Park avenue (which takes up the entire block; the next block jumps to 6522).  I am not sure if those were just the editorial offices or the actual production and distribution warehouse, but tantalizing to imagine the building was full of brand new Pocket Books less than a century ago.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

45. Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (Book 1 of the Liveships trilogy)

Crazy book-finding story about this trilogy.  As was my plan, I decided I was going to stay in the Robin Hobb universe and jump into her next trilogy.  Her books are hard to find used anyways and stores were still closed due to the pandemic, so I decided to just buy the trilogy new.  I had ordered the previous trilogy online from a big used book seller in the US but it took 6 weeks to get the books to me.  There is no equivalent store for used books in Canada. I like Bakka-Phoenix in Toronto and they had all 3 in stock so I ordered them new.  They came quite quickly and sat on my shelf for a week.  The day that I decided to start reading the first book, my wife said that she noticed several boxes of books in the alley behind our house.  "Mostly trade paperbacks, I don't think there will be much there."  Well any box of books in an alley starts me drooling and there has never been any in our actual alley so I rushed out.  It turned out to be an insane treasure trove of fantasy and horror paperbacks, amongst somebody's entire life of stuff.  It was moving day in Montreal and this often happens when somebody is evicted or died or just had to leave to  a smaller place and they dump their stuff in the alley or the sidewalk.

They were in quite poor shape, well-read but also discarded haphazardly, many covers ripped and pages folded.  They were also a bit musty and some smelled like cigarettes.  I ended up spending two days going through it, pulling out 10 books or so to keep and organizing all the rest in boxes that I put out on a busy corner for people to take.  I just couldn't bear to see the rest just tossed.  There was a lot of mainstream fantasy that I am not so interested in, like David Eddings, most of Game of Thrones, Piers Anthony.  And of course, you guessed it, the entire Liveships trilogy by Robin Hobb in way nicer earlier paperback editions than the one I ordered!  I was walking around the house with my mind blown while wife and daughter rolled their eyes at me.  I was seriously wondering if by ordering the trilogy new I had created some quantum overlap in the timelines.  There were no other Robin Hobb books.  Just the exact three that I had ordered two weeks earlier and just started reading that very day!  I will keep you all posted.

So on to the book itself.  Ship of Magic is the first book of the Liveship trilogy. It takes place in the Pirate Isles to the south of where the Farseer trilogy unfolded and just a little bit later chronologically.  So far in the first book there are no direct connections, but you hear rumours about the northern lands and their customs.  The war there affects trade in this region which has greater social and political ripples.  This is the kind of immersion I was looking for.  The story here is about an old Trader family who patriarch is sick and dying.  The Trader families have made generations-old deals to procure living ships made of magical wood.  When the third generation dies, the ship "quickens"and becomes conscious, with all the memories of its past voyages and the three generations of captains who steered him or her (they are gendered).  The mast head can talk and they are super badass trading ships, whose intelligence and rapport with the captain and the crew makes them far superior to a normal ship.  

Unfortunately, the widow decides to give the captaincy to her son-in-law, rather than a member of her family as they consider her daughter too wild, even though she has great potential and was super close to her father and the ship.  The son-in-law turns out to be a total bastard, ignorant and unwilling to learn the old Trader ways.  Shit goes bad and we then get to follow the storylines of all the different characters impacted by the situation.  There are several main characters in this first book and more threatening to become major: Althea the daughter, Kennit the pirate (no relation), Wintrow the son who wants to be a priest but forced to sale are the main three.  We get lots of suffering and hardship and character-building but it does not seem to be as consistently down as in the Farseer trilogy which started to get me down.  There are ups and downs and some satisfaction in this first book.

The worldbuilding is also really cool here.  The set up around the liveships is rich and interesting, going beyond just how they work but touching on generations of trade agreements, settlers and a complex mesh of politics between the old traders, the new traders, the faraway decadent Satrap and the Chalced States to the north, the market for slaves.  Slavery is a big factor here as well and the portrayal is brutal.  There is also lots of great sea stuff, piracy and ships in storms and that, which is extra fun when there is also magic.

While the bad guy is sort of extremely bad and beyond stupid, it is not as pervasive and annoying as it was in the Farseer trilogy.  The family that gives him the captaincy does it all right at the beginning and quite quickly realize their mistake and start trying to fix it.  So while it was really stupid to have done that (and not super convincing that they would have given the power of blood with the Old Trader families), the stupidity is over quickly and the rest of the book the characters are pretty rational.  I want to jump right into the second one, but this one was over 800 pages and took me almost three weeks to read, killing my book count.  So I need to take a little break and go with some shorter books to try and meet my 5 books a month goal.

A tale of two trilogies (or is it two timelines?)


Friday, June 26, 2020

44. Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald

I had decided to give the John D. MacDonald non-Travis McGee's a break because I was getting too used to his style and less patient with his social philosophizing, especially about women.  However, I was heading out to a cottage in Lanaudière and felt like something easily digestible for relaxed lakeside reading.  I also wanted to bang out a few more books before June is over as I will probably be heading back to the Robin Hobb phat phantasy world in her next trilogy, each of whose books is in the 400-700 page range.

As always, I enjoyed the set-up right away and JDM gives it to you straight and quickly.  Jerry is a construction exec in his father-in-law's badly run company, his wife is a shrewish alcoholic.  His old army buddy (OSS behind enemy lines stuff in India) comes to visit and proposes a surefire caper: rip off a diplomat carrying 3 million dollars to buy arms for an uprising in his banana republic.  JDM presents everything in this one in a very lowkey and straightforward style. At first, when he and the wife start to go at it, I thought we were in for a lot of bad period dialect, but it was kept short and effective.

We get on with the story.  Things go bad, in quite interesting ways.  This is a heist gone wrong tale, a JDM morality tale and a man losing it tale all mixed together for a very enjoyable ride.  It is quite dark at the end, though because so much has gone on, it's not a downer.  I can safely say that Soft Touch is so far my favourite of the non-Travis McGee novels.  I also love the edition I have.  Just a lovely layout with space allowing a busy illustration to express itself.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

43. Incident at a Corner by Charlotte Armstrong

I read this as the shorter half of a Giant Double Ace Novel Book.  I can't figure out what year this was published.  Actually, it isn't even clear when these stories were actually published.  Both have two copyrights on their respective frontispieces: 1946 at the bottom and 1956, 1957 at the top.  Confusing.  The other book is Unsuspected and the typeface looks to be from the 80s.  

Incident at a Corner is more of a dramatic suspense story than a true thriller.  There is almost no crime.  An old crossing guard is anonymously accused of being perverted with the girls and is fired from his job.  His daughter and son-in-law refuse to allow it to blow over quietly to save his reputation.  They investigate and start ruffling feathers.  Right at the beginning, the reader knows who sent the note, so the suspense if more if the forces for truth will overcome fear and suspicion.  The note spurs rumours and parents question their children in such a way that they are convinced the old man is a pervert. It is a very prescient portrayal of that kind of accepted community fear that is utterly irrational.  We see it exert itself to much worse affect in the satanic panic in the 80s.  The stakes are much smaller here, but Armstrong nails it with clarity and gentleness.  

A common set-up in Armstrong's books is the young man and woman, often a couple or with the potential to be one, overcoming social obstacles and a mystery together.  In the process of their investigation or search, they know each other better and end the book usually ready to get married.  I particularly liked the couple in Incident: Pat the artistic and strong metalworker and Jane the empathic but also firm teacher.

Ah, pretty interesting.  I found some info on this edition.  It is the G series of Ace Doubles, which was all women authors.  This is the first one and as noted in the website I linked to "The copyright dates are often included, but not the publication dates..."  This one was actually printed in 1962.  So I was a bit off about the cover typefaces on Unsuspected!  Anyhow, wow this looks like a line right up my alley.  Several Elisabeth Sanxsay Holding doubles and several other intriguing ones with amazing covers all by women authors.  Will need to keep my eyes open.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

42. A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress

I found a nice paperback copy of this book on a bookshelf on the sidewalk in my neighbourhood. It was full of mostly french books, some of which had the stamp of the library of my local elementary school.  I also found a Pokemon book for my daughter, which she had specifically asked me for.  So a nice little find in a time when the free closet on St-Viateur is still locked!  

This book plays a big role in the memories of my childhood.  I grew up in California in the '70s and we used to get these book catalogues.  As you got older they had different names and each had a selection of books you could buy.  I don't remember if they were subsidized or who actually paid.  I remember getting a few.  The teacher would receive a big book and hand them out.  Your books would be wrapped together in a rubber band with the receipt inside.  I remember it being quite exciting and it seemed to me at the time, that every kid got one.  I hope that was the case, as there several kids from less well-off families in my class.  

A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich was part of the heavier and so intriguing books that were offered to the older kids.  I remember The Chocolate War and The Outsiders.  I moved to Canada before puberty so never actually got the opportunity to order them and I only read a few, but the titles and cover images are still very evocative to me of the mystery of teenagers struggling with social issues in a very 70s way.

Actually, it was very timely to read this book.  At first, I was a bit put off as it is written in text in the language a 70s ghetto teenage boy would use with his peers.  It is written well, though, and each chapter is a different character, in their unique voice.  It moves very quickly.  The core story is of 13-year old Benjie who is on the road to becoming a junkie.  We start out with him, but then meet his stepdad, his teachers, his grandmother, his mom and others, each in their own voice.  It's short and tight and super clearly and strongly lays out the reality of the generational trauma the black community in America has suffered.  I knew this, but the recent chorus of seemingly educated white voices on social media makes me wonder what happened to our education and collective understanding of history.  This is the kids born 5 years before me, so early Gen-Xers or late, boomers who was reading books like this.  It just hammers home how little we have done about racism when you see how a mainstream book like this is basically laying out all the problems and it is from almost 50 years ago!

Another interesting comparison is the story of Bubbles and that young kid whose name I forgot who goes on to become a junkie and basically the next Bubbles.  A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich has a climax of hope, but a denouement that leaves the outcome anxiously undecided (funny that the previous book I read, Marianne Dreams, also ended with an ambiguous will-he won't he ending, though it seemed more optimistic).  I guess it is a story told all too many times in the ghetto.

One criticism I will make is that I didn't get a good understanding of Benjie's relationship to heroin.  There was very little that explained how the way the drug made him feel would make him want to keep doing it. It was elided and I didn't leave understanding how a 13-year old boy would become hooked.

Still, a great book, really well-written, tight and moving.  It's not preachy at all, but you will be reminded of urban black history and that the struggle is fucking real.  Black Lives Matter.