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?)