Thursday, April 30, 2020

33. A Sour Apple Tree by John Blackburn

My opinion of this book was thrown by misleading expectations.  This amazing cover suggested dry political espionage or perhaps an office murder.  The language and setting was very much in the British mold, with the protagonist being a high-ranking security officer and his top agent and they do dryly discuss past affairs of state.  Then things got a bit too colourful for my taste with a bizarre murder attempt and the agent going full Bond on the first woman he meets.  As I read through, I realized that this is more of a horror, semi sci-fi potboiler that should have had a much more garish cover.  The cover, to be fair, does symbolically represent what goes on in the book.  It begins with the resurgence of an old adversary, a British traitor named John Glyne who went over the Nazis in WWII and did english-speaking radio propaganda against the British.  His method was much nastier and less open to ridicule than the infamous Lord Haw-Haw and there were rumours that he later went into POW camps and somehow brainwashed British prisoners and turned them into traitors as well.

From the beginning, Glyne is described as having this tremendous charisma, so powerful that people feel compelled to follow him after being around him for a few minutes.  The way it is described in the book, it sounds not unlike Steve Jobs famous reality distortion field.  However, as the book progresses, the reader starts to suspect that we are moving into the supernatural territory.  More and more murders are being committed by subjects in insane asylums, ones that had shown no previous signs of wanting to do violence.  What starts as a hunt for an ex-Nazi traitor turns into a potential national murder crisis as the killing starts to infect the sane.  Much of the action is still an investigation and there are some really good regional inquiries and a discovery of a downed german sub.  A very fun, super-pompous old school Navy minister called Admiral Vane adds some fun to it all as well.  By the end, we are in full on Saturday morning matinee telepath battle and I had let go of my previous disappointment.  There were some minor annoying flaws, like one of the characters not phoning in what they were doing in order to make for a more suspenseful ending, but overall it ended up being quite enjoyable.
Nazi eyes make you dead!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

32. The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

This was recommended to me by a colleague at work who said it was quite weird but interesting.  It took me quite a while to find, so long that I accepted paying $12 for this bagged and near pristine copy, which I believe is a reprint.  The book was written in 1972 and the cover copyright from 1986.  I am happy to say that I managed to read the entire book without adding any significant damage other than it not lying quite as flat as when I pulled it out of the bag. 

It is a weird book!  The concept is that almost the entire book is actually the book "Lord of the Swastika" written by Adolf Hitler.  The about the author just before the title page, reveals that you are in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler emigrated to the US in 1919, became a succesful illustrator of science fiction and fantasy literature as well as a sometime writer and move and shaker in the fandom scene, before writing this immensely popular novel that was published after his death in 1955.  You get this one, fascinating paragraph to tantalize you with this alternate history.  Then the bulk is this insane fascist fantasy novel that is horrifying and yet somehow really fun to read. Then at the very end, there is an afterword that is a critical analysis of the Lord of the Swastika and serves to fill in the broader strokes of the alternate reality where such a book would have been published. 

The novel is really bonkers and deeply disturbing, both because it is somehow so propelling that you find yourself caught up in its momentum while at the same being totally aware of how wrong it all is.  It is basically a simplified, Nazi wish-fulfilled narrative taking place in a science fantasy, post-nuclear world.  Feric Jaggar is a superior true human, raised in the mutant-filled capital of Borgravia because his parents were exiled from their homeland of Heldon.  At the opening of the book, he is finally coming home, filled with disgust at the genetic impurity of the mutants all around him and patriotic fervour at his return.  Things move very quickly and he soon becomes the new leader of Heldon, leading it to greater military glory and genetic purity.  It is basically an allegory of Hitler's own rise to power but with Jaggar as a 6 and a half foot aryan super hero wielding a gigantic phallic hereditary truncheon that only he can lift.  The book is obsessed with uniforms and massive spectacle, as well as constant language contrasting the rigid and fanatical purity of the Heldons versus the putrid, sickening (sometimes pitiable) corruption of the mutants and worse the psychic Zind who control the oil and much of the rest of the world.  Reading this book is kind of like reading Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will in a fantasy world.  It's really a trip.  Because so little is revealed about the world in which Lord of the Swastika is written, you really have no idea of how it will end.  This also keeps you turning the pages.

I won't reveal any of the afterward, beyond saying that it's import in the meaning of the overall book (The Iron Dream, I mean, not the book within the book) far outweighs its few pages.  Spinrad seems to be critiquing a lot here, he attacks the Lord of the Swastika for the simplistic fantasy it is, mocking its sexual pathologies, its obsession with uniforms and massive human spectacle.  Yet, the reader knowing that in the real world (or at least our world), these things led to a horrific conclusion and were actually extremely effective.  He seems to be both revealing the ludicrousness of it all while at the same time underlying how deadly serious it can become, a message all too relevant in today's world.  On a lesser and tangentially related note, he also goes after the fantasy and sci-fi genre, noting that many of the elements taken to the extreme in The Lord of the Swastika have their roots in the classic sci-fi and fantasy tales of lone heroes with phallic weapons imposing their will on the world.  This is another element that is all too relevant today, as the nerd logic and masculine adolescent asperger's culture  which 20 years ago was confined to message boards and convention newsletters has now erupted into one of the most powerful propaganda techniques bringing down western civilization in the age of social media. 

Really interesting book. I shall now go read what others have to say about it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

31. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

I was very excited about this book.  It may be the first book I have ever pre-ordered, which I did from the lovely Argo Bookshop in downtown Montreal who hand-delivered it to my home because pandemic.  I first experienced Grady Hendrix when he was one of the organizers of the New York Asian Film Festival way back in the day when it was first starting.  I'm sure he did a ton of work behind the scenes (and I know he took my tickets once or twice), but he was best known for his over the top intros before the movies.  Now I took my Hong Kong movies nerd-serious back then and so his emphasis on the wackiness of the movies didn't totally sit right with me, but I had to admire his knowledge and recognize that his enthusiasm was genuine not mocking.  I lost track of him until Paperbacks from Hell came  out, where I started to follow his newsletter, which is fucking hilarious (you can sign up for it here).  I hope he keeps doing them because they bring me great joy, especially during this pandemic, where he is really shining.  So a long preamble to say I was happy to help support his pre-sales and looking forward to reading the book. 

Horror is not really my jam, but groups of non-standard heroes fighting evil is so this book held a lot of promise for me. I was not disappointed.  It's a solid book, quite horrifying at times and honestly moving at the end.  At one point, I got so upset with one of the characters that I had to put the book down and chill out.  This is not necessarily a book you want to read just before going to bed.  The world-building and the innovative and subtle yet complex history of the monster adds a rich depth that also makes the book satisfying.  I found some of the side characters to lack development (I wished that we had a bit more insight into Tilly, who seemed to change from wacky fun person to weirdly conservative), but this is a minor quibble.  The ending lacked a truly satisfying get back at the assholes feeling but that is a question of style than a critique.  I feel like Hendrix kept with a more realistic and thus less easy ending, but I would have enjoyed a bit more simplistic comeuppance for the dick husbands.

The hero of the story is Patricia Campbell, good wife and mother but a bit lost about who she is and what she wants.  Early on, she joins an alternate book club with the less serious wives in town and instead of reading pseudo-intellectual literature they go right into the true crime genre. One of them who is a devout Christian lies to her husband that it is bible study.  The book club is a through line, but much more of the story is about Patricia's tenuous hold on her marriage and her family, which really starts to fall apart as strange but handsome James Harris moves in to his great-aunt's house next door.  Shit gets weird and then gruesome real fast when Patricia stumbles across the great-aunt eating a racoon in her backyard.  This is where I knew we were going to be in good territory.  Hendrix does not pull any punches and it is really fucking gross.  And gets grosser at parts.  This is horror.  Another element that also develops early on is the mythology of the south and the supernatural.  At first, it comes through Patricia's mother-in-law, who lives with them and suffers from dementia.  It's all really engrossing.

I won't go into any more plot details because if you enjoy any of these elements, than you should just read the book.  I will say that there is further depth that elevates this book beyond just a good horror story.  The subtext here is privilege and how the evil impacts you worse the less privileged you are.  Hendrix portrays the husbands, at the privilege pinnacle, scathingly.  You just fucking hate them, especially Patricia's husband.  I almost want an epilogue where terrible shit happens to him as he is exposed to his own ignorance.  The white women's blindness to the situation of Mrs. Greene, who "does" for them is equally exposed.  

One other thing is that as a physical artifact, the hardcover of this book is really beautiful.  When you take off the slipcover, the cover is a sherbert green and the inside a lovely orange, which reflect the peach and leaves on the cover. It also has an embossed faux library seal.  Very well done, publisher and designers!

Friday, April 17, 2020

30. Killing them Softly by George V. Higgins (original title Cogan's Trade)

I am really not happy with the trade paperback I found at a local thrift store. It has Brad Pitt looking way to contemporary on a boring cover and now that I have finished the book, a totally sucky alternate title.  Was this done just for the movie, because it reeks of Hollywood idiocy.  The contents, fortunately, are pretty fucking tight.  Higgins writes mostly in dialogue.  Things happen, but you usually learn about them from one guy telling another guy in roundabout, Southie, semi-organized criminal argot.  The basic plot here is that three ex-cons rip off an illegal card game in some suburban hotel and Cogan is sent in to punish them.  When I was about a third of the way through, I told my wife that it didn't have much of a plot, that the real meat of the book is in the milieu and the characters and the dialogue.  Those things are incredibly strong, but the plot itself actually becomes subtly kind of intricate.  You realize that in this little world, everybody is sort of connected one way or another and a guy who was listening to another guy talk about two guys planning a hit on a fourth guy was actually one of the guys in on the original job that incited the need for the hit.  

Cogan himself is only in about half the novel.  Everyone is treated equally by the narrator and we get slices of all their various lives.  Their common theme is their struggle to make money and keep their wives happy and stay out of jail and not get killed, which for most of them seems to be too much of a struggle.  There were some passages that felt a bit long and I had to take a break as a guy goes on for two pages about his wife not liking it when he goes to prison.  On the flip side, there were amazing little crime vignettes.  One that stood out was two dog thieves, taking a carload of doped up dogs to sell in Florida who get caught in a southern deluge just as the dogs start waking up, shitting and farting in the car whose windows they can't open.  And by the end, the storyline really picks up pace and it becomes hard to put it down.  The ending is brutal and hard, quite sad but very satisfying.  Great stuff.

here is the lame one I found
Compare that to these below:

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

29. The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

My nephew and I made an epic trip last xmas to the Salvation Army in downtown Oakland to find boots and books, only to be dissapointed in both.  I did, however, find two 80s first edition hardcover Mary Stewarts, which I took as consolation prizes.  The first one was okay but I now consider this one to be a real find.  First, Mary Stewart is an excellent writer and I had forgotten how good she is at creating a sense of place as well as moments of satisfying character and badassery in her Arthurian saga.  Second, as I have embarked on the Farseer series by Robin Hobb, I am reminded of some of the tenets of epic fantasy, several of which Stewart does very well in this series.

That being said, I did not totally love this book.  It builds up wonderfully but ends on a frustrating note of uncharacteristic misunderstanding between the two main protragonists. The main character is Mordred, Arthur's bastard son with his half-sister and witch Morgause (Morgane Lefay as she is more commonly known).  Mordred is raised as the only son of a hard-scrabble fishercouple in the Orkney islands.  It's a long and twisted story that takes place in the previous book that lands him here. When Morgause's later husband, King Lot (like a few months later) learns that his wife was impregnated by Arthur and the baby abandoned, he has all the baby's in that village put to death, but Mordred escapes.  He is a good boy and his adopted mother loves him and fears the day when the queen may come and take him away.  Blood will tell and one day he accidently stumbles across young prince Gawain, his half-brother and rescues him, which brings his attention to Morgause the queen.  Thus begins his introduction to his destiny.

In some ways, up until the ending, this may have been my favourite book of the series.  Merlin, who narrates the first three, is really cool but can be somewhat of a bummer.  Here, we mainly have the perspective of Mordred and it is a very enjoyable coming of age plus political intrigue story.  There are some really cool interludes where he demonstrates his character and toughness. His mother as the antagonist is creepy and nasty, with one near-incest scene definitely taking her evil over the top.  I was thoroughly into it and turned the pages quickly.  It's all leading up to Mordred's destiny, which Merlin has foreseen, that he would be the downfall of King Arthur.  You don't want that to happen because they two develop such a good relationship and Mordred had the makings of a fine successor.  I could accept the bad ending except that the mechanics of it felt forced and really went against all that had been built up.  There is excessive miscommunication that creates distrust between the two men, which just didn't feel solid enough to destroy what was such a strong relationship.  So the ending left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.  Still, it wasn't enough to wipe away the enjoyable taste of all that led up to it, especially a really nice section where he makes his away alone through old England, camping out and feeding himself and just enjoying the autumn wilderness.  Very cool stuff.  I am also happy to know that though there is a fifth book in the saga, it is a standalone adventure taking place near the end of the third book.  So I don't feel any pressure to have to seek it out and read it soon, though it shall be on my list.

Monday, April 13, 2020

28. The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

I'm in a bit of a minor quandary with myself this month.  I have an on-deck shelf that is mostly filled with authors whom I like and whose books I was quite excited to find (John D. MacDonald's non Travis McGee's, Charlotte Armstrong, James Hadley Chase, William Haggard).  However, since I have read books by each of them already this year, I want to save and savour these waiting books over time. This desire conflicts directly with my obsessive need to clear out my on-deck shelf.  I had made a temporary solution by deciding this year to read a single series or author of a big fantasy or science fiction book in order and live with the on-deck shelf not going down much.  That author was to be Robin Hobb and my plan was nicely confirmed by how much I enjoyed the first book in the Farseer trilogy, Assassin's Apprentice.  Unfortunately, it all came undone with my order of the second and third books in the trilogy which won't arrive here until May, assuming all goes well!  So now I am stuck back facing my on deck shelf. I have decided to take this opportunity to narrow down what I have in the next few weeks. There are a few books by authors other than the ones mentioned above, but I thought I would go with this John D. MacDonald as it is his first book and I suspected would be quite different from the books where he had really found his voice.

It is a great setup.  Cliff is an agent of an insurance company, an ex-cop whose rigorous honesty got him kicked off the force in Florence City, a nice little resort town in Florida.  A wealthy old New England socialite gets bumped off in her winter hotel suite, her jewels stolen.  Because Cliff has some underworld connections and has done dropoffs before, he gets the job to try and reach out to the thieves and do a payoff from the insurance company to get the jewels back.  This has often worked with past thefts. The company still takes a loss, but nowhere near what they would have to pay to replace the jewels to the insured.  In this case, however, because of the murder and the damage it does to the reputation as a safe town where the rich can spend their winter months, the cops are all over it and they already hate Cliff.  They won't let him do the payoff because they want to catch the murderers too badly.  To make things worse, Cliff starts to fall for the socialite's niece, who may be involved.

It's a great ride, nicely paced with lots of action.  It's much more wild than you usually get with JDM (at one point, he chases down thugs in a car). The social theorizing is peppered in only sparsely, which makes it more enjoyable.  It's a light touch as opposed to the sometimes heavy moralizing that can wear you down a bit with JDM.  The sexual politics are as weird as ever, abhorrent at one point near the end where a woman gets slapped to have some sense put in her about marrying the dude who slapped her.  Again, though, they are mostly in the action and the subtext rather than JDM telling us directly his bizarre theories on women and gender, so they don't bog the book down.  There are two actual sex scenes as well, one which is quite effective in a steaming hot Florida apartment in a sudden thunderstorm and one which is so bad and weirdly written that I had to take a picture of it.  You can see the text below, whose climax is "twin convexities of alive plum-tautness" to describe the woman's buttocks.

Despite my weariness with JDM, which I think is overly emphasized in my review here, the guy really can create a rich and gripping situation and setting.  The town is so well portrayed, the various locations, the shitty corrupt cops (whose brutality is as nasty as ever), the syndicate run high-end club, not just physically but in how it all works.  He also weaves a realistic and interesting portrayal of how jewel thieves and the payoffs work. I don't know where he got all this stuff from, but it is convincing and absorbing. The title is a nice touch.  A cupcake, according the Cliff, is the term for little special things you get in jail in some prisons in the south, like cigarettes or a pint bottle of something, things that can also be taken away.  The brass cupcake is how he comes to see his badge, which he had thought sparkled with gold when it was first pinned on him.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

27. The Secret People by John Wyndham (written originally under the pseudonym John Beynon)

This is a lovely physical object.  The cover immediately caught my affection, especially the typeface of the title. I love these Coronets.  Unfortunately, it has absolutely nothing to do with the book. It's a stretch to even say The Secret People is science fiction. The story is about a man, Mark,  who has made his fortune by building up his family's shoe company.  He takes a little break to fly around the world in his personal jet (this is the sci-fi part).  He meets lovely Margaret at a resort hotel in Egypt and offers to fly her over the New Sea, a massive project to artificially flood part of the Sahara desert and make it viable for agriculture again.  On their way back, the plane engine blows out and they crash into the lake.  They manage to get to a small island, but when trying to escape are sucked down into the water by a giant whirlpool.

It turns out that underneath the desert is a vast network of underground caves, people by white-skinned pygmies who survive on giant mushroom colonies.  There are also hundreds of other human castaways who have gotten themselves trapped her over the years (and centuries as some people have been born there). The pygmies keep them prisoners in a lowered section where they farm their own mushrooms.  Though the pygmies are small, they far outnumber the castaways.  Because Mark and Margaret had found a scraggly old cat on the island and had brought it with them, when they are confronted by the pygmies, Margaret is not thrown in the prison section, but kept up with the pygmies as the handmaiden to the cat, whom they consider a god.

It goes quite quickly, though with a few overly theoretical dialogues speculating on the pygmies and man and all that.  There is a small team that has been trying to escape and when they are betrayed, it becomes a race to fight off the pygmies while defending the escape tunnel.  This part is really pretty excellent, as the only real material in the caves are stone and giant mushrooms.  The escapers build ramparts and creative weapons out of them while the pygmies become more creative in trying to break through their barrier.  There is a series of attacks and defenses in a giant cave that is a lot of fun.  The ending is quite exciting and made for an enjoyable adventure romp in a strange situation.  It is all tinted with "benign" and thoughtful colonial thinking.  Wyndham is trying to be conscious but the subtext and the way certain characters act and are treated because of their race is a bummer.  The whole idea of flooding the Sahara and the destruction it would do to the people who actually live there is addressed, though in an offhand manner that also reflects the offhand manner in which the pygmies civilization comes to an end. 

Nothing close to this exists in the book,
but nice image!

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

26. Assassins's Apprentice by Robin Hobb (part 1 of the Farseer Trilogy)

I've been holding off on this popular fantasy trilogy for a few months now.  For the longest time, I avoided trilogies and series as a rule.  Then when I really got my reading pace back up a few years ago, I relaxed that rule.  I spaced out books in trilogies and ultimately found myself losing track of what happened and not feeling so satisfied.  My plan now is to read them all together or at least much closer together.  I read an article which extolled the greatness of her world-building and so picked this first one up.  She has many trilogies and I believe most of them take place in the same world, though perhaps at different times.  Various commenters suggested the Farseer trilogy, (Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin and Assassin's Quest) was the place to start.  I was not disappointed, though I have some hesitations.

I am not sure if a label exists for this subgenre, though I have encountered it a few times in sci-fi and fantasy.  A young person enters a high-ranking political situation as an outsider and has to navigate unknown enemies while growing into his or her own character and skills.  The best example of this and one of my favourites, is the Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison.  The first half of Assassin's Apprentice reminded me a lot of that book, though it definitely goes off on its own path as the story goes on.  A young boy is dropped off at a military castle by his grandfather.  He turns out to be the bastard son of the land's prince and the family could not afford to keep him.  He is rejected by his father and left to be taken care of by the stable master.  Here he learns animal husbandry, seemingly ignored by his family until one day the king taps him to be trained as a royal assassin.  He recognizes that a bastard is a potential asset that could be exploited by their enemies or used by the royal family.  It's a really cool set up and was a pleasure for me to follow the development of this naive boy in his training.

The world-building is as cool as advertised.  It is standard fantasy stuff (though mostly humanoid) but varied and original in its details.  The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on a peninsula and there is tension between the agriculture regions inland and the duchies on the coast.  The external threat, red pirate ships that have some power or method of turning the people they kidnap into soulless maniacs, is severely weakening the kingdom.  Most of the story is on the internal politics, though so much is left unclear until the end that it is more detective story than courtly intrigue.  I really enjoyed this book, but I found the good characters to be oddly unaware of the threat around them and the bad characters to be so obviously bad that I felt kind of frustrated.  I am hoping that part of it is that the hero is only 14 years old so really naive.  Like there was clearly a conspiracy going on and the various participants are all super antagonistic to him, several for no reason. He himself is befuddled at why the stable boy gives him such a hateful glare.  That could have been handled more subtly as it was clear way too early for me what was going on and yet the good guys walked right into it.  Despite that, the climax was quite satisfying and I am definitely ready to jump into the next book, which is supposed to be arriving here in a few days.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

25. Ramona by Helen Jackson (H.H.)

I believe this may be the oldest book I have ever read, meaning physically oldest.  This book appears to have been printed in 1884.  It is in quite good shape and I hope I kept it in almost as good shape as when I got it.  Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, I am not going out so wasn't worried about carrying it with me.  I still tore ever so slightly one page.  The quality of the paper and binding on these olders books was quite good.  It was given to us as a gift from old family friends and I had no idea what it was about.  It turns out to be a forgotten classic, a huge hit back in the day that it came out and one that reinforced the idea of California in the eyes of a westward expanding nation. It also created a lot of consciousness about Mexicans and to some degree the suffering of the indigenous peoples of California.  Jackson had written a non-fiction report three years earlier titled "A Century of Dishonor" about how the Americans had totally fucked the natives.  She wrote Ramona to fictionalize much of what she had put in the report to try and spread the word.  On her deathbed, she wrote a letter to the president, pleading with him to redress the ongoing repression of the indigenous population.  Some argue that her book was influential in pushing the Dawes act.  

The story takes place in a Mexican ranch in central coastal California.  It is run by a strong, inflexible woman, La Senora Morena.  Though her son, Felipe, is the ostensible boss, she has the great skill of subtle manipulation, controlling everything without saying anything directly and somehow making her son think he is making all the decisions.  She has also taken in her dead sister's daughter, Ramona, whom everybody on the farm loves, except La Senora herself.  Ramona falls in love with the head of the Indian sheep shearers and La Senora forbids it for all kinds of crazy reasons, but basically racism and a weird, misplaced jealousy of Ramona.  I am not doing justice how well and thoroughly written the characters are, turning this simple into a rich and believable dynamic.  The character of Senora Morena is really an all-timer, nearly tragic at the Lady Macbeth level.  It's the kind of story where you would be screaming why can't you just not be fucking lame everything would be fine, except that their characters are so well-built that the lameness (the rigidity of the mother, the weakness of the son, the jealousy of the friend) makes perfect sense.

It also really pulls no punches when it comes to portraying what happens to the natives.  I portrays the Mexican and Catholic relation wit the natives a bit too positively, despite some narrative saying they weren't all as nice as the main ones in the narrative.  The Americans are shown to be the monsters they are, using manufacturing laws to drive the natives from their homes, steal their cattle and horses and basically destroy their lives.  It is interesting to read this narrative after There, There.  It is no surprise that there is so much trauma among the American Indians.  What is a surprise is that they even survived at all.  It's fucking horrific.  Some of this is hard reading.

What is not so hard to read are the beautiful descriptions of California at this time.  It really is an incredible part of the world and back in the 19th century as Americans were only starting to destroy it, you get a sense of how bounteous and beautiful it was.  While you start to get the sense that things are not going to go well early in the book, the fleeing couple stay in a few really cool locations, ultimately ending up in a hidden valley high in the mountains. This location had me feeling quite a sense of longing seeing as I will probably be here in my nice little urban neighbourhood for many months.

Great book.  I am really glad it was given to me.  

(Note, why the fuck can I not wrap text around the image in Blogger anymore?)