Wednesday, July 21, 2021

46. The Intercom Affair by Eric Ambler

It is the plot of The Intercom Affair that stands out for me. With Ambler, you are always going to get well-written european mid-century spy milieu scenarios with a nice gang of eccentric characters, euro-mongrels of equally mixed morality.  We had all that here, but it was the setup that made this a stand-out Ambler for me that I am glad to have re-read as an adult when I could appreciate it better.  Two mandarins of small unnamed NATO countries' espionage department meet over the years socially and over time, develop a plot to make a bunch of money and disappear into a luxurious retirement.  

It takes a while for the reader to figure out what the plot actually is, as the action moves to Ted Carter, the lone writer, editor and publisher of a jingoistic, right-wing conspiracy journal bankrolled by a wealthy retired American military officer.  Said officer and owner dies and what Carter expected would be the end of a soft but paying gig, gets weird as he gets purchased by a distant Swiss investor who only asks that he add certain articles to his paper.

I will not expand any further, as the fun is in the elements being revealed and then connected as you read the book.  It is cleverly structured with multiple perspectives in the form of transcripts of interviews, letters, etc.  Semi-epistolary, you could call it.  It has fun little digs at the rigid Swiss security forces and other players in the European circus that immerse the reader nicely.  I think that I am old enough now to properly appreciate later Ambler.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

45. The Tin Men by Michael Frayn

I took this from the free bookbox on Esplanade solely because it was a cool looking Fontana. I had not idea what it was about. I still struggle to explain it now that I have read it. It's a satire of British professional culture in the 60s and quite funny at parts. The plot centers around an institute of automation, somehow affiliated with a big television company. The Queen is coming for an official inauguration. 
There is a weird mix of academics, technicians, administrators and really weird upper-class "directors" who seem to do nothing at all. I think the culture of work and technology has changed so much since this book was written that a lot of the humour loses its impact. Nonetheless, it was very wittily written and has some very funny characters, like the super sporty guy with a horrible colonial past now obsessed with security risks.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

43. The Black Assassin by James-Howard Readus

I think I bought this at S.W. Welch because it was $5 and has there pencilled-in price in the upper right hand corner.  As a paperback artifact, it is a beautiful find, an original Holloway House with a cool cover.  I'm a big fan of the assassin/sniper rifle scope view for a cover.  I am also very into black power conspiracies to take over America.

Unfortunately, this book was kind of a mess. It never really got to the government takeover that the back blurb promised.  It spent way too much time on the excessive side characters, most of whom got their own paragraph and then were promptly forgotten.  It felt like Readus was trying to copy the style of thrillers of the time, but left out most of the meat of what would have made this story great.  A group of Black American elites conspire to train an elite assassin and send him on kill missions that will propel a Black senator to become the president.  Again, a great plot.  The assassin himself, Adrian Baker, ex-military is sent to Algiers where he is broken down and then built up again by Chang, Soviet-trained Chinese scientist.  He is then sent to DC and NYC in the guise of the Tanzanian ambassador.  There he hooks up with a supermodel and carries out two hits.  The story ends up focusing on Adrian and the girl who I guess sneak off and live happily ever after while the conspirators try again with a new assassin.  

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

42. The Ravine by Phyllis Brett Young

Ricochet Press does great work.  They publish out of print Canadian genre fiction, mainly in the mystery and thriller category.  I've bought most of the Montreal-based ones and found this one somewhere.  The author is Canadian (and I guess was quite succesful back in her day with several books, including The Torontonians which I would like to get my hands on), though The Ravine takes place in an anonymous American small city.  I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping it was going to be about the ravine that goes through the northern part of Toronto.  I suspect she was inspired by that one.

The town is shaken up by the second rape and murder of a young girl in the aforementioned ravine (though the first girl actually survived but was a near-catatonic shell of herself).  The protagonist is a young woman artist and teacher who left her NYC upper-class background because her own sister disappeared.  She discovers the second body and sees just a flash of the killer, who looks to her like a devil.  Though she is ridiculed at the inquest for this and in the local newspaper, a doctor senses she is telling the truth and then from this figures out that the killer is one of his esteemed colleagues.  Together, she and the doctor work to capture him.  I am not spoiling anything because this is all spelled out quite early on.  I guess the suspense was supposed to be more psychological but the lack of mystery took the energy out of the book for me.  

The ravine itself is portrayed as a source of evil, in an almost Stephen King way.  It's treated as a dank, marshy tangle, dark and hateful.  This really felt like that very 20th century hatred of nature.  This bugged me.  Uncontrolled nature is not just a location where human evil can thrive but its very existence encourages human evil.  The newspaper has a campaign to cut all the trees down and build a road through it.  There is also a part where this super excellent police dog gets killed and there is zero aftermath.  His police handler doesn't even seem to care!  

Friday, July 02, 2021

41. The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

This was a nice little find that did not disappoint. I would say at this point I am a Mary Stewart fan with some minor misgivings.  I have read all of her Arthurian works and 8 of her thrillers.  I had a feeling that she would bring her skill to a young adult tale with excellent results.  My only disappointment is trying to get my daughter to be interested in these kinds of books.  My agenda is to expose her to the classic young adult fantasy books from the mid to late 20th century before her mind gets polluted by Harry Potter.  She showed zero interest so far in this book and I must be prepared that she never will but I am going to keep i lurking around on the off-chance that something inspires or forces her (like boredom) to open it up and discover the magic within.

It starts off with the pretty classic situation of the younger child being left alone at her boring great aunt's house, so bored she wishes she could be sick so she could go to the friends' house she where was supposed to be staying (but couldn't because those kids got sick).  Of course, it is a beautiful old lodging house with a cool old gardener, gardens and a mysterious forest nearby. She meets a small black cat who leads her out into the forest where she discovers a very special looking flower.  Things start gradually at first, which some might find a bit slow but I just loved, particularly when you get a nice mix of local folklore (the gardener expressing surprise at her finding such a rare flower which used to be used for healing) setting the stage for the real magic to come.

I won't go into the details because the fun is in going on the journey with Mary.  A lot happens and it gets pretty wild and fast-paced.  This is the thing about these older YA books.  Mary Stewart did not need 16 books and a theme park to deliver satisfying escapism.  It's all here in less than 200 pages.  It's also not soft as the bad witches are up to some pretty nasty stuff.  I also liked the theme of animal alliance.  Just a really great little book.  It was also made into a Studio Ghibli movie called Mary and the Witch's Flower which we will have to check out.

Monday, June 28, 2021

40. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

So from struggling to find them at all, I have no read 4 books by Dorothy Hughes in the last year or so.  In a Lonely Place has been sitting on my on-deck shelf for a long time, a bland NYRB reprint (redeemed by putting an excellently written by Megan Abbot afterward instead of a forward) which kept calling at me "when will the time be right for you to read me?".  Well maybe it would have been sooner if you weren't such an odd size and with a super boring ass and forgettable cover.  "It's not my fault fake highbrow readers will only approach genre fiction if it doesn't threaten them with appearing lower class in their hands."  Indeed, this is not your fault book and we should not judge you by your cover, so read you I finally shall.  And did.

Once again, we have a female crime author whose masterpiece is obscured and lost while people continue to freak out about big-name male authors.  I was really glad to read Abbott's analysis at the end, because I didn't fully appreciate how thoroughly Hughes twists the genre inside out, gender-wise.  Even without smarter analysis, this book is possibly one of best and probably earliest of the serial killer point of view sub-genres.  Serial killers are really not my jam at all.  I have found them played out even when Silence of the Lambs came out and now they are as ubiquitous as zombies.  They always seem like an excuse for a male author to express "creative" violence against women.  Simply because of the subject matter, I am not inclined to love this book.  But I have to recognize its craft.  It also feels like it establishes several cliches that become commonplace in noir and pulp fiction (and even later movies and books): the class resentment motivation, the killer who is friends with the detective, the killer's perspective.  As Abbott states, this book came out before Jim Thompson (who is today almost a household name among crime readers with movies getting made).

One of the great things of this book is that it is super dark but never nasty or titillating.  All the real violence takes place off stage, yet their impact is no less minimized.  Likewise, the unreliable narrator (because of their own insanity) is handled so deftly that there is very little fake mystery for the reader.  Hughes doesn't need to play those jump scare fake-out games with us as she is so deep in his sad, twisted head that you get enough horror from beginning to understand his thinking.  The natural social concerns of anybody with status (worrying about how you look, worrying about what the neighbours may think, etc.) get all mixed up with Dix Steele's paranoia so that he is both constantly obsessing about what evidence he may have left behind as well as whether or not to park his car in the street or in his garage (which is a minor pain in the ass, but lets him enter his apartment via the alley unseen).  The latter worry is not about avoiding getting caught but because he doesn't want the neighbours to think he is someone who stays out late.  Likewise, he is also super angry with anybody who is working class. Hates the gardener and thinks he will punch him if he says hello again, hates the "slattern" who cleans up his apartment.  It's almost funny at times.

One element this book has that didn't get copied is strong female characters who end up saving the day without any fake suspense generating risk to them.  The ending doesn't remove any of the darkness and yet left me satisfying.  It is not explicit, but you really feel for the soldiers who come back from a world war to a complex world with their status often back to zero.  In a Lonely Place really gives you the feeling of how quickly and artificially post-war America imposed a vision of suburban ease on itself.  The violence coming out of Dix Steele in some ways prefigures the violence of Vietnam and the 60s yet to come.  I tease NYRB for their design above, but I commend them for reprinting this book.  

This is no masterpiece of a cover
but at least it has something going on!

Sunday, June 27, 2021

39. The Hard Sell by William Haggard

Another excellent, "sophisticated" thriller by Haggard, this time the plot revolves around a British engine manufacturing company struggling with industrial sabotage in Vittorio, Italy where they have partnered with an Italian airplane firm (the brits make the enging and the italians the plane).  Colonel Charles Russell of the Executive branch takes some personal time to deal with the problems, since the owner of the British company is an old friend of his.  Russell is very scrupulous to pay for everything himself, but once he gets to Italy, he sniffes out that the mystery impacts England on the global industrial stage and his overnight stay becomes two weeks and real work.

Though I would consider Haggard's spy stories to be "above" Fleming's in that the actual espionage is subtle and complex and the conflicts mostly psychological. Victory requires knowledge, self-control, profound understanding of other humans rather than brand names and gadgets.  That being said, The Hard Sell feels very similar in its aspiration to a James Bond book. This is spy escapism for older men with a higher education level.  Russell gets to stay in a really nice hotel with a great bar, slum it in the older working class part of town (and of course stumble upon a little unpretentious bistro that has the best food and service) and even get knocked out and end up in an old school brothel with a super hot and experienced courtesan who appreciates him for being a gentleman ("She might be forty-five but looked much less, still a warmly magnificent woman").

There is a bit of action, but most of the story is Russell and the other major players all scheming and trying to second-guess what all the others are doing.  The cast of characters is rich with amoral euros playing the game: the chief of police hiding that his cousin is a Communist, the Swedish expat fixer way over his head in debt to Americans pulling his strings, the aforementioned Communist who is well educated and rich but doing good in some weird way that Haggard approves.  It's all very enjoyable and in this very beautiful Penguin paperback that I tried to keep in good condition but had to read.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

38. The Cold Moons by Aaron Clement

Darned if I can't remember where I found this book.  It's a nice addition to my collection of animal adventure books.  I guess at the time it was quite popular and I understand that the badger cull is and was a source of public attention in the UK.

It took me a while to get into this book.  I checked on Goodreads and my reaction was not uncommon.  His writing style is a bit clunky and instead of actual dialogue, he narrates their conversations.  I am not against the idea, as I think the intention was to not make them too anthropomorphic, but it does distance you from the interactions you are reading about.  The plot is quite simplistic as well and you don't feel too much tension about where the conflict will come from.  Despite all that, once the real journey gets started, I found myself quite wrapped up in the story.  The maps were excellent (drawn by his wife whose credit you can barely find at the bottom of the rear flap) and really helped to keep me connected to the story.  I really wish more fantasy books with journeying and lots of geography would do this good a job with the maps.  The only problem was that they were in the wrong order!  

The story here takes place in Wales when hoof and mouth disease was threatening the livestock farmers.  Transmission was blamed on badgers and Britain in all its stupid post-colonial insecurity sends in the military to kill all the badgers in the land.  I don't know if this was a real plan, but it doesn't surprise me. This is the kind of cruel self-damaging stupidity that is at the very soul of these sorts of violent bureaucracies and is an important counterpoint to when the positive elements of the British spirit that I tend to admire in my fiction. The focus is on a particular community of badger setts, away from any farms that get an advance warning of the holocaust to come and flee to find a home far away from man (actually where they believe they can live in harmony with man).  Alongside evil man, we get the other antagonists of internal strife, embodied by an ambitious, evil badger and the elements and the journey itself.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Beaufort, the capable but uncommitted badger whose father is the de facto leader.  When his father dies, Beaufort discovers his own innate leadership capabilities.  There are news clippings interspersed which detail the ongoing success of the military's badger cull and the growing public resistance.

A lot of people compared this unfavourably to Watership Down, which I haven't read in ages.  As I said, it is not a complicated book, but I really got into it and it made me love badgers.  It also has great descriptions of the Welsh countryside, which Clements clearly loved.  A nice find and a nice read.

Monday, June 14, 2021

37. Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Not the volume I have
I understand now why Shards of Honor and Barrayar were put together into a single book called Cordelia's Honor.  The two books follow each other linearly with not even a day between them.  However, structurally and thematically, Barrayar is much more of a satisfying narrative and a complete book.  So I will count it as a separate book.  :)  Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan are now married and their period of marital solace on the family estate on Barrayar ends quickly as Vorkosigan is tapped to become the regent while the 5-year old emperor Gregor grows up.

I found the initial introduction of the characters on Vorkosigan to be a bit confusing.  All the nobility, who are called Vor, have names that start with Vor so it is hard to distinguish them.  Barrayar is a patriarchal, militaristic society that only recently joined galactic space, so also technologically and socially backwards compared to Beta colony where Cordelia, who is the primary protagonist comes from originally.  Much of the book is about her tying to understand the culture and compare it to her own.  The big storyline is how violent and fighty Barrayar is, anchored by a near-civil war as a more traditional count tries to take over the regency for himself.

There is a lot to like here.  I got much more connected to the characters and the action was a ton of fun.  I love political intrigue and Bujold writes it well.  I wish I had a bit more grounding into Barrayar politics and society before the shit hit the fan so I could have appreciated it more, but as the book went on, you get more and more hints and details of how things work in this world and by the end it is filled out in a fairly satisfactory way.  Cordelia is a great character, really tough and aggressive without a lot of internal hand-wringing.  I feel like Bujold crafted a competent female character from an equal society in a way that seemed relatively realistic and not bound to our current (or rather mid-80s when it was written) sexual mores.  That is quite rare and hard to do.

Monday, June 07, 2021

36. Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

I went to the library to pick up comic books for my daughter (she is churning through comics and just completed the gorgeous 7 volume Don Rosa Uncle Scrooge omnibus put out in France, in french; I am a proud nerd father) and happened to see Son of a Trickster on the shelf.  I had been intrigued by the show on CBC and had this book on my radar.  While it's a bummer that the show got cancelled (my opinion on that below), now that I have read the book, I will most likely actually watch it since it is only 8 episodes.

The book has so many elements that I am into these days.  I love the latent magic storyline in any context, and the west coast First Nations mythologies are so cool that this seemed like a great combo.  As a proponent of "decolonizing" and a fan of genre literature, I am also always excited about non-white perspecitves in sci-fi, fantasy and crime.  Finally, Canadian.  What was also cool about this book that I hadn't expected is that it brought me back to my own adolescence.  It really captures small town shit hole B.C. life.  I did not lead anywhere near the childhood that the characters do here, but it was around me on the fringes of my upbringing outside of Nanaimo. The decor, the language, the getting fucked up in weird people's houses all felt very real.  There is something about small town Canada in all its dreariness and oppression that drives you to force out some joy and creativity.  I felt that was really well captured in this book.

The protagonist is a grade 10 First Nations boy named Jared who lives with his hot, aggressive mom and her drug-dealing boyfriend Richie. We actually get a complicated family history right from the get-go, learning of Jared's grandmothers, his dad, his mom's various boyfriends.  You sense there is a lot that he hasn't been told.  The storyline for much of the book is Jared trying to negotiate high school relationships and the chaos of his own damaged family.  There are very, very subtle hints that something else is going on in Jared but these really only explode at the end of the book.  

The subtlety of the supernatural in this book is just great.  I don't know why I love it so much when the weird is woven delicately like this.  Maybe it makes it seem more possible?  The nature of the weird as well is really cool, hinting of systems of magic interspersed with science at a cosmic scale with a crazy potential for epic backstories and weird-ass creatures.  This book only hints at what might be out there.  I want to learn more but I hope it continues to be subtle.

My only critique is that I found Jared himself to be kind of annoyingly resistant at the end when he starts to learn about himself.  He kind of takes on the attitude of the annoying characters in older movies who refuse to believe.  I guess he is supposed to be a troubled grade 10er but he seems so level-headed and given the shit that happened to him, it felt a bit forced and out of character, an attempt to create artificial tension where it may not be needed.  

The mom character is really interesting. She seems just really mean at times, borderline abusive.  Not super likable, but some of her behaviour becomes more justified as you read on and it is cool that the female character gets to be just be a straight up super aggro badass.  

For those of you who didn't follow it, Trickster the TV series was quite well received and on its way to getting a second season when it came out that the showrunner, Michele Latimer, had lied about her indigenous lineage. She did that super weird fucking thing that a lot of Quebecers to do where they claim to be Indian and maybe even actually do have some actual indigenous blood in their family, but grew up totally white.  Now I don't know if she grew up in a white household. She is from Thunder Bay so maybe she lived near and hung out with the First Nations communities there.  Much of her production work was with and about indigenous people and Trickster had mostly First Nations people as the cast and crew.  It just still seems so fucking weird.  I get it that there are a lot of white people who are totally into other cultures.  Could she not have been super white First Nations fan girl, help push for more indigenous productions and not pretend that she herself was one?  And when she got busted, instead of just admitting it and being super embarrassed and recognizing why it is a problem, she doubled down with vague bullshit about "her truth" or some nonsense like that (in the Globe & Mail no less).  Is it simply that she was able to create a professional niche for herself with this lie?  If so, that is really inexcusable.   

I do feel bad for everybody working on the show and I hope they can get it rolling again. Was she really so crucial to it that they can't get the second season going without her?  That also seems weird.  Are there not some kickass First Nations show runner who can continue the work?  The books are already written. It's darkly hilarious how fucking racist this country is that the big successful First Nations TV exec turns out to be an imposter, because of course the CBC is most comfortable working with people who speak like them and can play their game.  You can hear them now "Well yes she is indigenous but she's so well-spoken!"

Saturday, June 05, 2021

35. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

These Baen editions are really
not to my liking
A while ago, I decided to look for one fantasy and one sci-fi epic series of books into whose world I could dive deeply.  For fantasy, I went with Robin Hobb's Elderings series and that has worked out quite well.  For sci-fi, I am tentatively going with the Vorkosigan saga.  I am a bit put off by the publication nature of the books (they are physically huge in America and there isn't a clear correct order of reading nor a single narrative through line).  I found Cordelia's Honor which contains two of the earliest books (both in terms of in-world chronology and publication).  I feel a bit cheap considering this as two books, but I'll take my numbers where I can get them.

After finishing this, which I mostly enjoyed, I am still feeling somewhat tentative.  Bujold has a slightly breezy way of writing where she doesn't always explicitly say what is going on or what her character is thinking, but it is strongly implied by the absence of a phrase.  The book itself also starts in medias res and the overall effect is to make me feel like I have jumped into the middle of a world that I don't know very well.  I felt like I was expected to "get" it and enjoy it before I really understand how it all works and what the characters were like.  There is a romance here, but it is oddly matter-of-fact and removed in how it unfolds. Is this because of these two very unique characters who are inherently heroes and thus make huge decisions about their future with just a sentence or two?  Or is this the culture of this future space world?    There are also some political sub-text that I wasn't quite comfortable with.  The military society which seems a bit like a less extreme Nazi Germany (the conformist aggressive hierarchy, the internal power battles, the bucolic rural officers residences on their home planet) is contrasted favourably with the more chaotic and hypocritical liberal democracy of the Betans.  It is early and I suspect I will get a more nuanced presentation going forward, but just felt a little sci-fi consnerdativism there.  There is some casual rape-as-narrative that I don't think would fly today in the way it is presented here.

On the other hand, I do feel a rich and interesting galaxy of intrigue and politics, which is what I want in my sci-fi epic and the characters were very cool.  It's also very enjoyable reading once you get her style.  I will continue onward with the Vorkosigan saga.

This is the one I am reading, which
contains Shards of Honor and Barrayar

Friday, May 28, 2021

34. In Broad Daylight: a Murder in Skidmore, Missouri by Harry N. MacLean

True fiction is not usually my jam. I enjoy the occassional long form article, but I never seek out entire books.  If I am going to read non-fiction, I usually prefer something from older history.  There is a lot of value in true crime books for the kind of reading I enjoy. They can provide real-world info on the crimes and criminals that I enjoy reading about in fiction.  And often something being real, just makes it that much more bonkers what goes on.  On the flip side, because the stories are about real people, they tend to be quite dark and depressing, without any of the cathartic release of fiction.  In other words, they are just too real for me.  This came with a friend's discard pile, him telling me it is an all-time classic.

The story is about the town bully who is allowed to run wild until the town is basically forced to take action into their own hands.  After years of his stealing, abusing and threatening violence to anyone who crossed him (or who he imagined crossed him), they finally gun him down in the middle of main street.  The author takes great pains to argue that the final killing was not something planned.  At that point, the town had just come together to defend themselves after the nth time that the authorities had failed to prevent him from fucking with them.  It was supposed to just be a patrol to keep a constant watch on him and to protect the family of the people who were going to testify against him (up until then, he had intimidated and isolated all witnesses for previous crimes) but somehow they just snapped and started firing.

It's a fascinating book to read post-Trump.  This is definitely flyover country and probably voted for Trump.  In Broad Daylight never specifically addresses politics. The book, like the town itself would like to think, is apolitical.  But the undercurrents of the belief in minimal government turning into activist aggression against any government are very present.  Here you see both the independent, individualistic culture of farmers and their workers and the angry blame-everybody else resentment of that same culture when it is uncoupled from basic moral values.  MacLean only treats the how and why of that uncoupling indirectly, basically telling McElroy's life story and the story of the town in as factual terms.  There are reasons for McElroy to have been such a complete psycho.  He is of the tenant farmer class, who live in poverty, dependent on the indirect work needed to support agriculture, both legit and criminal. He does seem to be geniunely psychologically disturbed, perhaps from an earlier farm injury.  He also hates all the farmers, partly as the undeserved scapegoats of his own narcissistic personality, but also because of how he was treated in school and in society as basically white trash.

You really do feel for the townspeople.  MacLean does a good job of explaining how they allowed McElroy to go as far as he did.  The system definitely failed them time and time again.  McElroy had a scumbag lawyer who played the rules to the hilt for the advantage of his clients, without any moral concerns whatsoever.  The rules themselves which were designed to protect individuals from the state, also can be bent to protect truly bad individuals at the cost of the community.  And finally, the town itself lacked real community cohesion, both due to its individualistic history and its long-term economic deterioration, which drove out young people.  Finally, when they do take him down, the backlash is both a media onslaught with a lot of after-the-fact moralistic hand-wringing about vigilantism and a sudden involvement of multiple levels of law enforcement right up to the FBI, none of whom could do shit to stop McElroy from running wild beforehand.  McElroy's tactics are very similar to Trump's actually, and the system failed almost up to the breaking point.  The depressing part of today compared to the early 80s as portrayed here is that ultimately the community sided with decency and working together whereas now it seems many of these types of communities have gone over to the McElroy side. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

33. The Time before This by Nicholas Monsarrat

I found this one in the free shelf somewhere.  It's a really nice old Pan (1962) in quite good condition.  I like Monsarrat as well, but was suspicious of the vague concept and empty pullquote from the beginning and the thin size.  What was this book about?

My suspicions were correct.  This is more of a fictional essay musing on war and mankind. The plot is basic. A reporter is in the Canadian north doing a story on its recent economic growth.  In the bar in a makeshift town that is already dying, he encounters a drunken old man who rants at everybody and then gets picked on by some bullies.  The bartender informs the reporter that the old man is a troublemaker and has been doing this for a long time.

We get almost half the book with the reporter wrestling with his conscious and then finally deciding to help out the old man.  There is a young woman named Mary who cares about the old man and the two of them help him out of jail.  Back in his boarding room (with a nasty old woman who runs the place; an excellent portrayal of Canadian cheapness and meanness), the old man finally reveals his secret.  He discovered a giant hi-tech refrigerator on an island off of Baffin Island, with frozen armadillo-skinned humanoids frozen to death in a state of surprise.

He believes (and I think this is the point of this story), that his discovery proves that there was a superior civilization who died by its own folly.  If only others could believe this, they would realize that current day humans are on the same path.  It was well-written and I dug what Monsarrat was putting down about the folly of humanity and the stupid cruelty of war.  I am just not sure why this got a separate novel treatment of its own.  Ah, I just read the back!  This is a part of a series.  I guess Monsarrat was big enough at this time that he could justify it.  Probably interesting to read them all.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

32. The White Van by Patrick Hoffman

I can't remember why I picked up this book.  I did have this link to an interview with him, but I have not actually read it yet.  It may have just been strongly recommended by somebody on the excellent Rara Avis mailing list. In any case, I bought it new from Dark Carnival.  Always happy to find an excuse to buy books from there.

The trade dressing is really not my thing, but the book itself was quite good. It starts out with a girl meeting a Russian businessman in a bar in the Tenderloin in San Francisco.  They get drunk together and he takes her back to his hotel room where things get weird. She is kept in the hotel, watched and doped up but not really harmed or specifically coerced at first.  From there, an urban crime story with global roots unfolds.  It's a pretty classic crime story, with characters separate and then converging into a climax of violence.  I found the prose tight and the story moved forward with momentum.  It has several interesting characters and you don't lose track of any of them or their names, which is not easy to do.  The backstory and the criminal operations all seemed were detailed and seemed realistic.  The local Bay Area dialogue sounded genuine to this old man's ears ("He was just sitting in that van with the engine on, right in the middle of the street, just hella lurkin").  I read it in a day.  This is pretty good stuff for modern day noir.  Recommended.

Monday, May 24, 2021

31. Ship of Destiny: Book 3 of the Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb

The year before last, when I was really getting back into reading form, I cast about looking for a deep fantasy series with excellent worldbuilding.  Voices across internet came back to me with a pretty consistent recommendation for Robin Hobb.  After having completed the first two trilogies of her multi-trilogy (4 trilogies and one quadrology to be precise) epic which I believe is now called The Realm of the Elderlings (ROTE for short), I can attest to the voices.  While I have mixed feelings about some of Hobb's narrative choices, I have definitely been satisfied from this deep fantasy dive and am hooked enough to want more.  She can be very rough on her characters and there are some really frustrating behaviours and because of that the books can become a bit of a slog in the down sections.  So I am not going to devour these like one might a Joe Abercrombie.  But when my appetite is renewed, I will start on the next trilogy.

Ship of Destiny is the final book in the Liveship Traders trilogy and while it wraps up the storylines of so many characters (primarily the Vestritt family children), more importantly it fully reveals the ecology and history of the sea serpents and dragons.  If you are at all interested in reading this trilogy, you have already read too far spoiler-wise.  I can't talk about this book without revealing some cool stuff that you would rather discover yourself.  The dragon backstory is really cool and the depth of both the world's history and how what happened is impacting the current story is so well done.  You don't even realize it at the beginning that what the book is ultimately about are the dragons (again).  It all comes together in a way that makes you want to soldier on to find out what will happen (and to still learn what happened to the Elderlings, since that is not yet revealed).

And there is some soldiering on.  Again we have several situations where characters make wildly extreme assumptions and then run off in their head about how bad everything is based on those faulty assumptions.  It's really annoying and feels at some points like Hobb is trying to force conflict in order to extend the storyline.  It just isn't necessary.  Reyn Khupra, who is in the beginning the mysterious and alluring Rain Wild son who sets his eyes on innocent and headstrong Malta Vestritt.  Their love and the evolution of their characters is mostly really cool, until they are separated and the dragon refuses to rescue her.  So we have to have pages and pages of Reyn being all suspicious and angry at the dragon. It's just so stupid, anybody with half-a-brain, which Reyn has would be somewhat circumspect at least here.  I get you are disappointed, but full-on blame and being the anti-dragon guy just feels forced.  Likewise with Wintrow, who is totally into captain Kennitt, but then becomes like his zombie slave and refuses to listen to his aunt when she tells him that he raped her.  I get that there is often disbelief in rape victims and I guess that is a theme Hobb wanted to put in here, but it just seemed so artificial for Wintrow to at least not question Kennitt's behaviour (which was totally erratic).  These things just piss me off and they sometimes conflate with more naturalistic behaviours and actions that also piss me off and so at times I have to put the books down and take a break.

Which does bring me to another cool thing about these books.  They are very "woke" but it's all deeply embedded in the fantasy stuff. This is a book about multi-generational trauma, both how it impacts individuals and how it impacts entire societies.  As the past is revealed in the last book, you realize that everything that is happening in the stories you read is because of previous abuse, either in the form of the rape of a young boy or the destruction and theft of dragon's eggs.  These terrible crimes are forgotten and their victims living in unself-conscious ignorance of how their current existence is entirely based on such crimes.  It makes for some interesting soul-searching and character reactions when the past is slowly revealed to them, as well as the bigger problem of how to move forward with the current reality. 

I preferred this trilogy to the Farseer trilogy mainly because it was warmer and there was more cool fantasy creatures.  It also had a more satisyfing and happy ending.  The climax and payback was not rushed this time and the main bad guys (the Chalcedeans; so far the only ones painted simplistically) got housed.  The ambivalent antagonists also got either a comeuppance or some learning.  

I hope that part of the reason I enjoyed this trilogy better than the first one is that Hobb was also improving.  These were written over 20 years ago and cranking out one trilogy and then two, you must get better.  I mean I am nitpicking here. This is some incredible fantasy writing and I am happy I have so much more to dive into in the same world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

30. The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee

I had wanted to read this book for quite a while, it being a combination of pulp action/blacksploitation and political/racial critique (though separating those two is kind of artificial, I hope you get what I mean).  I found a very nice Wayne State University Press trade paperback reprint in a free book box in Berkeley and had to grab it even though what I really cherish is one of the original paperbacks.  I do own an original paperback of his other book Baghdad Blues and I have read it, but it must have been before I was doing the 50 books challenge, because I have no record of it here.

The actual book did not let me down.  At points, especially the first two-thirds, I was almost exhilarated with reading pleasure.  It is a fantastic combination of pulp immediacy, espionage fantasy and "radical" black politics (only in the context of this racist world does wanting not to be treated like shit and reacting to violence with violence considered radical).  In the beginning, Dan Freeman is the one "ghetto" black person hired by the CIA as part of a new recruitment program to integrate "negroes", a result of pressure from a liberal white senator pandering to get the black vote.  The whole thing is a sham and the other candidates who all come from the educated class of black people are disappointed as they are slowly eliminated from the program.  Freeman knows the game and plays it to the hilt, quietly not being noticed yet dominating in everything to the point that the CIA is forced to hire him.  It's really delicious, as he is undercover both to the CIA and the other African-Americans in the program (who dismiss him entirely).  The book is just scathing to this latter group.  Greenlee clearly hated the new black bourgeoisie, who he sees all as Uncle Toms, striving to scrape the teeny bit of scraps given to them by white America.  The whiteys who run the CIA are just seen as utterly stupid and blind in their racism.

Once in the CIA, he is parked as a lowly copier of documents with a fancy title, but he takes advantage always playing the game of the good, striving negro while absorbing as much intel and skill as he can.  He eventually gets promoted to being assistant to a high-ranking general.  I won't go too much more into the storyline beyond that his next move is to return to Chicago, get a job at a white run and funded community outreach program where he starts to recruit among the gang members of the inner city to quietly build his revolution.

There is a lot packed into this book.  In the end, I can't say I loved it and that is simply because the subject matter is so profoundly sad and infuriating.  By the end, Greenlee veers away from the pulpishness into a full-blown in your face immersion into an ongoing summer riot that leads into the actual revolution.  There are fun moments in the revolution, as they get various acts of revenge on bufoonish white leaders, but underneath it all is real rage and it is kind of painful to read.  

What is instructive today in the wake of the resurgence of race as a primary issue in America and the world is both how much things have changed since the late 60s and yet how little.  The extremities of the racial divide in the U.S. have improved, there is no denying, in the last 50-60 years.  Economic opportunity, equality in all walks of life have gotten better compared to what is portrayed here.  The fundamental dynamic, though, seems about the same.  Black people are still seen as somehow inferior and any attempt by them to change that is still attacked with the same arguments as in this book, though now couched in safer language.  The hypocrisy of the white liberals is also still very much prevalent, though I would hope some of the new thinking around allyship is actually taking root in the various movements for change.

I hope this book is standard reading for any curriculum on the civil rights and race relations in America.  This is the real deal.

Monday, May 10, 2021

29. The Quiet American by Graham Greene

I've always had positive thoughts about Graham Greene, but when I decided to read this book, I found those thoughts being challenged.  I though back to my college years when his books (and Conrad) were the only spy-type books that could be found on a liberal arts college campus.  They always seemed intriguing and I read The Ministry of Fear and maybe one other, but they didn't stick with me.  I found this one for free and thought I should educate myself.  That is when the old reaction to anti-genre fiction kicked in.  It suddenly really bugged me that his books get somehow elevated as literature and studied in academic circles while all the really good books are just ignored as "genre fiction".

And I have to say that reading this book only reinforced that feeling.  It's a good book, but feels basically like an excuse for a middle-aged white man to feel all mopey about things.  It's full of melancholy and British post-war impotency and angst about superior Americans.  The setting is fascinating and well-portrayed:  Vietnam near the end of France's colonial control and just before the Americans took over to really fuck things up.  The writing and descriptions are excellent.  The basic story is also good, an older, jaded journalist meets a young, idealistic American who honourably steals his Vietnamese mistress and honourably gets involved in espionage to tragic results.  It's just that much of the actual text is the narrator's sadness and struggles.  I guess this may be a big metaphor for the colonial transition from the old world to the new and that is sort of interesting.  So it's a good book, but I am not seeing here what gets it a sophisticated abstract illustration cover and addition to college curricula.

After some research, I will add that when it came out in 1955, it freaked the Americans out and from that perspective, Greene definitely predicted the mess they would create when they got fully involved in Vietnam.  

It did encourage me to do a bit of research into French Indochine and wow is it super complicated and wow were the French ever a bunch of bastards and yes once again the ills of today (Myanmar dictatorship) can all be traced back to Colonial intervention. 

Friday, May 07, 2021

28. Death Grip! Soldato #2 Man against the Mafia by Al Conroy

Just a lot going on with this title and the cover as well.  The "NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED" really intrigues me.  What is the marketing tactic here?  Was there a legion of Al Conroy fans waiting for his next book?  Was Soldato #2 somehow skipped and then published after later numbers in the series were already out?  I do love the yellow background with lots of space to let that great illustration breathe.  It really captures the anxiety around the mafia that is the fuel that drives these kinds of men's actions book: a black glove immobilising a man, stifling him and nobody to help.

I really don't get the mafia as the other.  Why was it so prevalent in this period and these books?  I can't believe it is anti-Italian racism because these books are written long after Italians are seen as new immigrants.  I wonder if it is the opposite, where cartoonish Italian mafia were a safe target in the post civil rights period.  

I'm not going to say that Death Grip! rose above its genre, but I did actually quite enjoy it. It has a sparseness to the dialogue and quite a good sense of place.  I got caught up in it.  The set-up, which is pretty much cookie cutter, brackets the book but gets out of the way for everything in between. We don't keep getting the constant reminders of what drives Johnny Morini.  He just does it.  After his adoptive father is murdered and his daughter raped to suicide, Morini, ex-mob gunman himself turns on his masters (I guess this happened in the first book).  On the run, he is discovered and hired by a wealthy, dying Italian-American businessman who hates the mafia.  The job this time is to take down a family that handles a chunk of rural and suburban Philly.  

The story really gets fun here. Johnny comes into town, starts doing small hijacking jobs and slowly insinuates himself into the criminal scene and then the gang itself. He does the same to a rival gang and then starts to inflame tensions between the two, playing each against the other until it explodes into a full-on war.  There is a lot of violence, grimly realistic but still over the top with the quantity of shootings and stabbings and gun types. Some of the action writing wasn't great early on, a bit clunky, but I got used to his style and I have to give it to him for clearly describing the scene so you could picture it in your head. There is also a great forest hunt that was really well done.

I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  It was far superior to the Executioner one I read.  I look forward to checking out others in the series.  There were 5 in total, I learned, with Gil Brewer writing two of them.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

27. Madam, Will you Talk? by Mary Stewart

This book was half-maddening and half-quite enjoyable.  Fortunately, in that order.  I think I am starting to get a handle on my ambivalent feelings about Mary Stewart's work.  There are elements in her books that really bug me, mainly the way her main characters perceive and behave.  I was having trouble distinguishing how much of my annoyance was more due to the historical context of the time she was writing and how much was due to her own choices as a writer.  Her books, written mainly for women, I assume, but probably capturing some male readers at the time, take place in that really awkward period in British gender dynamics in the second half of the twentieth century.  Mary Stewart seems to handle this by constantly reinforcing their weakness internally. Her characters are actually kind of kickass in the way they behave.  It is in their internal narrative that they are constantly questioning themselves. It bugs me.  I still can't fully delineate if it is my own inherent sexism and general frustration with ambivalent characters (this annoyance applies to male characters who prevaricate as well; one just encounters it less in the kind of fiction I read) or if there is something inherent in Stewart's writing that makes it stand out for me.

Madam, Will you Talk? did help me to realize one thing that she does as a writer that is honestly worthy of criticism.  She writes in such a way that makes you assume you are dealing with a reliable narrator, but in the womanly worry internal monologue, she steers the reader deliberately in the wrong direction so that you perceive a character in the book erroneously.  It feels like cheating to me.  Specifically, in this book, she meets a man that she has been told is a murderer.  He is looking for his son and at this point, she believes that the son is hiding from the father.  However, she is clearly jumping to conclusions and the reader knows this.  Yet, Stewart paints her reaction as if he is a murderer. 

"I saw his eyes narrowing on me in a look that there was no mistaking. It was not imagination this time to see violent intentions there. If ever a man looked murder at anyone, Richard Byron looked it at me on that bright afternoon between the flaming beds of flowers in the garden of Nîmes."

Reading it again, it does sort of make sense in the context of what we learn later.  Still at the time, I was pretty sure Richard Byron was not going to be an actual bad buy.  The writing made me feel conflicted and unsure and not in a suspensful way but just in a confusing way.  I do think somebody smarter than me could analyze the sexual politics here, as the threat of violence is inherent in some weird way in their eventual loving relationship.  He bruises her wrist and these bruises keep coming up even after they have cleared up the confusion and realize they love each other.

And this was the really bizarre part. He is pursuing her and she is fleeing for the first big exciting chase in the book.  This goes on all over southern france and is quite fun.  When he does finally catch her for good, they realize they both had read the other wrong and are on the same side.  And then like two hours later, she is confessing that she is in love with him!  It's just bonkers.  Was it because back in the 50s you couldn't have sex before marriage, so if you were at all physically attracted to somebody, you had to fall in love right away so you could get it on?  Stewart does a good job of believing that the two could be attracted to each other after the mix-up.  It is actually a fairly effective and enjoyable romantic set-up but the speed of it is just dizzying.  Like maybe they can have a mix-up and antagonism that turns to attraction but can we take our time with it?  Just bizarre.  

As I said, I was quite annoyed with the first half and somewhat disengaged.  However, the second half delivered some real thrills and the plot backstory was rich and convincing.  I realize I haven't even got to the main plot in my zeal to do simplistic literary analysis.  Basically young and attractive widow Charity is on a vacation in France with her friend.  At an inn in Provence she meets a nice but nervous 13 year-old boy who is travelling with his stepmom.  Charity learns through the tourists gossip network at the inn that his dad was accused but acquitted of murdering his friend and that the wife (the stepmom) is on the run with the boy, fearful of murderous and maybe insane Richard Byron.  Charity befriends the boy and in trying to help him hide from his father uncovers a more complex plot.  

It is the second half where the plot begins to be revealed, the mystery lifted and true bad guys and good guys properly divided where we get some really good action.  Charity's previous husband was a fighter pilot and a really good driver and he taught her how to drive.  She gets to use her driving and fighting skills in a great scene where she bests and breaks down a nasty but incredibly handsome French conspirator.  Really fun stuff!  So ultimately redeemed and Mary Stewart stays on the list.  :)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

26. The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

When I found this book, I had to take it.  Years ago, somebody posted the cover art on Twitter and I snagged it for my cellphone background (insider tip: cover art without the type is perfect for cellphones because the top quarter is always left open).  I had this great image on my phone for quite a while so I thought I at least owed it to the artist and writer to the read the book upon which it was based.

I am quite glad I did. This is an interesting and smoothly-paced story that answers a classic speculative question in a serious and thoughtful (and subtly critical) way: what would happen if aliens arrived on earth?  In this case, they come as a giant rectangular slab that suddenly appears on a small river in rural Minnesota, smashing a bridge and the car of Jerry Conklin who was fishing under the bridge.  There are many characters and perspective shifts from the White House to a newsroom to the man in the street, though Conklin and his girlfriend (a reporter on said newsroom) also provide a more direct narrative through line.  The "visitor" doesn't do anything for a while.  And then it starts consuming trees.  Then more come and land all over America.  The rest of the book is us trying to figure out what the hell they are doing and how we can respond to them.  It is is not disimilar to Rendezvous with Rama, except the speculation takes place on earth and these things are still active.

I won't spoil anything specific, as much of the fun in this book is learning about what these things are doing.  Simak does a really good job of keeping the narrative going and giving us enough to speculate in a satisfying way.  There is no conclusive ending, but enough to make your own judgements about what will happen.  A clue is that at the very beginning, a racist barber is complaining about how the Native Americans are getting the rights back to a forest.  His ugly diatribe (and the fact that he is the only person killed by the visitors after he shoots one and receives a reactive jolt of energy that basically cooks him) and the town newspaper guys response does foreshadow a parallel with the arriving visitors.  Though they are much less aggressive than "the white man", they do seem to need to consume resources and are potentially offering very shiny gifts in return.  

I really enjoyed this book.  There is a lot of thinking about society and what alien visitors would mean to us, but it is woven more elegantly into the story than Simak's earlier works.  It's very readable and the speculation itself is quite well done. It leaves enough for you to think about after it is done and kind of wanting more but knowing that spelling it out in nerdy detail would ultimately be less satisfying.

I realized after I finished reading this that I had somehow conflated Simak with Richard Bester (whom I didn't love).  Now I realize that City is the only other Simak book I have read.  I was critical of that one, but it was very thought-provoking.  I am going to have to upgrade him in my head and maybe read other works of his.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

25. The Dead Don't Care by Jonathan Latimer

First of all, I want to give a shout out to The Paperback Warrior.  I am a particular fan of their podcast which has been consistently professional, informative and kind of fun.  If you are a fan of 20th century crime paperbacks, their site and podcast should be one of your go-to references.  They did a best of 2020 and co-host Tom* chose Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer as his favourite book that he had read that year.  I am still looking for it, but did find The Dead Don't Care by the same author at Dark Carnival. 

First of all, I really enjoyed Latimer's writing.  He has a nice sparse yet entertaining style, reminding me of Dashiell Hammett with a spritz of John D. Macdonald (though that maybe because this one took place in Florida). His descriptions of Florida and the beach were incredibly evocative, made me long for the hot sand.  He also has a lot of great drinking moments, both in the dialogue and the described actions.  They drink a lot, especially Crane, the main detective, who is a self-aware alcoholic.  There are also some great snippets of dry detective humour.  So a real pleasure to read.

There are two detectives here, Crane and O'Rourke, part of a larger company who has been hired by the trustee of a rich scion, Penn Essex, to protect the heir who has been receiving threatening letters.  They go to his waterfront mansion south of Miami and there live the high-life with Essex, his sister and their motley collection of guests.  Crane seems to have had a higher class upbringing than O'Rourke, though both seem to have the clothes for the situation.  The location, the characters and the various conflicts and things that go down are all very enjoyable.  I was really looking forward to how it all played out.

Unfortunately, the plot and to some degree the resolution, was a bit disappointing.  Tom's description of Solomon's Vineyard made it sound really hard-boiled.  This book definitely had some edge and you got a great sense of the darker side of life, both rich and poor.  The plot, however, was a more traditional whodunit, almost a "cozy" in the sense that you were driven to try and solve the mystery of who is sending the threatening letters (and then who is the kidnapper who snatched the sister).  I kind of figured it out early but it seemed too obvious.  The reveal was even done as a classic parlour presentation.  None of it was terrible, it just felt a bit like two genres colliding and the wrong genre for the style winning out.  Solomon's Vineyard will remain on my list as will Latimer as the writing style was so good.

One weird thing is that the back cover blurb of this No Exit Press edition gets the name of one of the characters wrong and is just erroneous as only one of them is the sidekick.  Quite sloppy!

The other detective is O'Rourke

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

24. Day of the Drones by A.M. Lightner

I can't remember what prompted me to take this book from the little outdoor book box where I found it.  I think it was the combo of Post-Apocalyptic and racial issues as a subject matter.  I was wary as well, though, since science fiction about race written in 1969 can be questionable. The cover also worried me that it was going to be psychedelic and lack coherence.

My apprehensions were quite erroneous. This was actually a very enjoyable, straightforward PA adventure with a cool setting and some simple but not wrong-headed thoughts about race.  It takes place in some distant future, several centuries after "The Disaster" when most of humanity (and most mammals) was wiped out.  The surviving humans live inland somewhere in Africa.  They are a civilized society, technologically primitive, but with some memory of the past.  They attribute the destruction of the world to white people (and to uncontrolled use of technology).  The protagonist is a bright young woman named Amhara who is sent to school with the potential to rise high in the society. Her childhood friend N'Gobi is as smart as her, but light-skinned.  Actually so light that it was only by the pleading of his mother and the other villagers that he wasn't killed as a baby.

With the support of sympathetic professors who value N'Gobi and Amhara's skill more than they respect the taboo of N'Gobi's whiteness, they form a team that is going to explore outside of their lands for the first time.  This trip is triggered by N'Gobi's discovery of a new kind of bird with a strange, knotted rope around it's leg that could only be done by somebody intelligent.  They have a solar helicopter that had been hidden away (this is a bit of a stretch, but in line with the rest of the book which doesn't fret about nerdy details so we can get on with the exploration).  The journey, which is cool in and of itself, finally discovers the birds on a small island off the English coast. There they do finally discover other people, a tribe of white people who have patterned their society around the giant bees that feed them.

It's a neat, tight little story. There is conflict but it is all done in a non-stressful way which I appreciated.  The racial politics may be a bit naive (there is one person on the expedition who is disgusted by N'Gobi but she learns to appreciate him as a human) which seems appropriate as the author is I am pretty sure white and definitely lived well (went to Vassar and ended up in NYC).  I much prefer a straightforward racism is bad and can be overcome if we work together message than some convoluted "exploration" that you tended to get in sci-fi and crime books that did deal with race from this period.  I also really dug the portrayal of the bee society.  It was a cool idea to think of primitive humans with no mammals who would become dependent on the insects around them.

Lightner was quite prolific in fiction and non-fiction and did some other YA and PA books.  Worth checking her out more.  Nice little find!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

23. Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

He gets his name on the cover, so I guess I also have to give a shoutout to story selector and introduction writer, Patrick McGrath, who I guess put together this New York Review of Books collection.  Daphne du Maurier is one of those authors with whose name I have been quite familiar while also basically being ignorant of what she actually did. This book was handed on to me by a friend who was doing a shelf purge.  I felt a bit burdened, but now am glad I read it as it is a nice introduction to du Maurier.  She is an excellent writer.  Although I am not a huge fan of short stories, her clear prose and subtle ability to change styles and perspectives is well demonstrated in all these stories.

The two well-known stories, because of the movies based on them are the titular "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds".  I didn't love the movie of Don't Look Now.  I don't know why, it just kind of bugged me. The death of the daughter was so horrific and sad that the rest of the movie couldn't surpass that feeling and the couple just seemed mostly annoying.  The story is tighter and the husband comes off much more as being an ignorant ass (and thus getting his ironic, "Appointment in Samarrah" type ending).  The Birds was simply exquisite.  A dark, tight story of survival in rural England, it feels very influenced by WWII and the blitz.  The movie takes the basic premise but completely relocates it.  Here we have much more of a straightforward and grim tale of apocalyptic survival.  Just excellent.

The other stories are all equally well-written and intriguing, but ultimately suffer for me from the lack of depth inherent in the short story. There is a really cool one where a woman comes out of an eye operation and everybody has a different animal head (The Blue Lenses).  Kiss me Again, Stranger is a nice woman as serial killer twist with a great but doomed young romance encounter.  

I will have to read one of her novels at some point.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

22. The Ants by Peter Tremayne

This was quite a nice find for a paperback collector and in beautiful condition.  It almost looked like it had never been read.  I am also a big fan of the killer ants concept (who isn't).  My all-time favourite old time radio show (and also a classic) is the William Conrad Escape episode "Leiningen Versus the Ants".  The ants as devouring adversary are a great antagonist in and of themselves, but they also engender creative solutions to fight them.  It's fun to think about.

Unfortunately, though The Ants is a competent even enjoyable book, the creative solutions are lacking. I strongly suspect that Tremayne either read the original short story that Leiningen Versus the Ants was based on or heard the radio play.  The setup (South American plantation) and several of the techniques (particularly the fire ditch) to fight the ants seem to be cribbed right from the story.

There are two protagonists here, Jane the anthropologist who returns to the Mato Grosso province to find her father and the tribe they lived with all completely disappeared and Hugo the bush pilot working for the largest plantation owner in the region.  His plane crashes and Jane rescues him.  Together, the two of them with the one native boy survivor make their way back to the plantation, where Xavier the owner, Lopez his foreman and Consuela his selfish and sexy wife are in their own little domestic conflict.  This group must first solve the mystery of the destruction and then when they learn it, fight the ants as well as their own internal conflicts.

As I said, if it were wholly original, I would say it's a pretty fun ride.  The ants are awesome in scale and the destruction they cause is quite fun and well-described, as is the stress when they start to threaten.  Tremayne does a good job of describing the tactile sensations of a lot of large ants, especially when they get squished.  It gets to you a bit.

There are, as usual, some minor missteps with the gender roles.  Jane lived for several years already in a remote village in Brazil, speaks Portuguese and Xingan and is an excellent and fast shot.  Yet as soon as there is danger, she faints.  Hugo is constantly sending her to the safe places.  It's this weird dance of yes she is a cool girl who can do stuff but oh she is also a woman so better not actually just make her the protagonist lest she stress the sensitive ego of the male reader.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

21. The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill

When I found this book in the bookbox in Little Italy, the back cover was missing and the front cover was almost ripped off.  Normally, that is too damaged for me to take, but this was a beautiful 1954 Pan edition with a really nice illustrated cover.  I'm glad I read it but I don't know if I will keep it.  Ethical and archival considerations come into play.I believe it is something of a classic, at least was quite popular when it was released not long after the war ended.  It's the straight-ahead story of the pilots and leaders of the 617 Squadron, a specialized super-heavy and accurate bomber team.  It has the best portrayal of British humble pluck and some pretty exciting bombing runs.  It is told in a documentary style, but the action scenes are none the less thrilling.  I have to admit that I didn't quite understand how the targetting was done by the lead planes, as there was some jargon and terms that were perhaps more widely used right after the war.  It is always crazy to me the men who flew in WWII.  They would fly a plane 10 hours just to get to a bombing run!  Think how hard that would be.

The cast of characters get a bit confusing but the ones that are highlighted are quite compelling.   He pays particular attention to Wing Commander Cheshire, a true eccentric of the British income-less landed gentry.  Brickhill seems to have known and talked with many of the people in the story and he fills it out with many little anecdotes and asides about their characters. 

There is one disturbing element in this book.  It smacks you in the face a few chapters in.  The squad leader's dog is named the n-word!  Just seeing it once is really shocking, bringing the entire good guy narrative into perspective.  You suddenly see that these personable lads are also the elites of a destructive, rapacious empire whose racism is so deep that they would name their dog the perjorative term for a peoplel they had subjugated.  There is a whole little sub-plot with the dog and the name comes up several times.  And spoiler alert, the dog is hit by a car and is killed just before the first big flight.  Reading that chapter created a real conflicting mix of emotions in me.  Imagine being a nerd of colour and reading this book and stumbling onto that word.  

So I'm left conflicted.  The book is too beat up for my library and I don't think I want it in there anyhow.  Do I repair the front cover and pass it on or should it be removed from circulation because of the use of that word and maybe it is just at the end of its life?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

20. The Executioner #24: Canadian Crisis by Don Pendleton

The Executioner books do little for me but I had to pick up #24 for $10 from S.W. Welch because of the Canadian content.  And not just any Canadian content, but Quebec and Montreal.  This one will go in my glass display case next to Iceman #6: Canadian Kill.  

Just as a concept, the Executioner books are hard for me to understand.  Mack Bolan is unstoppable. There is little suspense in his campaigns against various mafia headquarters.  There is also not a wide range of interactions to be had in stories whose main purpose is to deliver scenes of mafia goons being gunned down.  I guess there is creativity in the ways in which they get set up.  The actual gunning down can take place in a range of locations.  But overall there is just not a lot to these books. They are almost poetic.  Mack Bolan goes to a new place, assesses the situation, has some plan (where he can also call upon any government agency and all their resources) and then kills everybody.  We get really bizarre conversations and narrator musings about questions and answers where the answer was already written and the answer it is always death.  You can't even really tell what political world these books are in.  Something about extreme individualism but so muddled up with Bolan's weird life (death) philosophy that it is almost meaningless.  The theme of these books is that The Executioner must be constantly killing mafia people and they must keep being there to be killed.  At least in the two books I've read, the mafia don't even actually do any crimes or harm anybody. 

Canadian Crisis sends Bolan to Montreal where he has learned of a global crime summit where somehow the American mafia will launch a crime invasion of Quebec, taking advantage of the current political instability (this book was written in 1975 a few years after the FLQ crisis, which is mentioned). The crossing to Canada, the drive to Montreal and the stealth approach into Montreal (via Rivière des Prairies) are all geographcally acurrate.  I was hoping we would get more of that in Montreal but unfortunately the rest of the book takes place in a hotel so we never get to see the rest of the city.  It's a cool hotel because it has a network of secret shafts and tunnels, which the Quebecois Francais (the new separatist society following the footsteps of the FLQ) has discovered and retrofitted to use to start their revolution. I guess the plan is to kidnap and kill a lot of rich people in the hotel but before that it serves as a perfect way for Mack Bolan to kill more mafiosa.

Pendleton does a decent job of giving some colour to the mafia who actually get names and roles and there is a well done reveal when the bodyguard finds his boss with his throat slit.  Bolan meets a hot revolutionary quebecoise who is named Betsy Johnson because her father was American.  Her conversations with Bolan are the weirdest. One could believe that Don Pendleton had never actually spoken directly with a woman, certainly not a French-Canadian revolutionary. She has all these questions and he keeps telling her the answer is death but she doesn't get it until she has to.  And then he gets to go off camping with her to fish and have sex until he has to go back to killing mafia again.

Friday, April 16, 2021

19. The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

I am starting to see a pattern in Charlotte Armstrong's work.  The climax often involves somebody trapped somewhere with limited time before they will be killed, while one or two people desperately try to find them and convince the authorities.  In one, the guy was trapped in the basement of a house about to be demolished.  I also have a better grasp of her tone.  When I first started reading her, the outer and inner dialogue felt stilted and uncertain which made the characters seem unreliable.  Now I think that is more her style and is intended to give an immersive feel to the reader.  So I found myself better able to just sit back and enjoy the narrative.

The setup is Francis has returned from WWII and discovered his childhood love has hanged herself while in the employ of a much-loved retired film-producer.  His sister has already gained employment at the producer's house to follow up on her suspicions.  Francis pretends to be the husband of the recently drowned daughter of the producer to also insinuate himself into the household, but his plot gets thrown for a serious wrinkle when the daughter shows up alive.  It is a psychological game of cat and mouse as Francis and his sister try to find proof that the suicide was murder while the daughter struggles with her own reality.  The producer is a real trip, super charismatic and manipulative with an almost spell-like voice.

I find the interactions a little too hesitant in this book.  Armstrong does a great job of building up tension but there isn't quite enough release for my taste.  The fun is in the hidden conflicts as people try to communicate with a mix of lies and truth.  The ending here, though, was quite exciting which kept me turning the pages.  I'll try not to be too spoilery but leave this to remind myself that it involved garbage men and a trunk.

They made a movie out of it and Claude Rains is the perfect actor to play the producer.