Friday, October 15, 2021

62. Perry Mason Solves the Case of the Nervous Accomplice by Erle Stanley Gardner

When I was a kid, the Perry Mason TV show seemed to be on fairly regularily.  I didn't love it but would watch it on the general principle at the time to watch whatever was on TV whereever I was given the opportunity since we did not have a TV at home.  I remember vaguely being able to follow the plot and the legal twists that came up. This is the first time I have read one of the books and two things stood out me and surprised me somewhat.  

First, Perry Mason seems completely without morals and his legal ethics seem super questionable.  In this book, he gets his client to hail the same taxi she took the night before (where the driver recognized her which would put her at the scene of the murder) which investigator Paul Drake tracked via radio and then take the exact same trip at the same cost but with a new outfit and a friend to later use that to make the taxi driver look unreliable on the stand.  That can't be allowed, can it?  And the crazy thing is at that time, Mason himself wasn't convinced that his client was innocent.  It surprised me to see such a cynical take on legal procedure from the early 50s but I guess lawyers have been gaming the system since they were released on the world.

Second, Hamilton Burger, the prosecuting attorney and I guess regular foil for Mason is comically stupid and always and obviously two steps behind.  Every objection he makes he uses the same phrase "objected to as incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial." Ultimately, Perry Mason does perform some clever tricks to expose the truth, but he is just so clearly superior to the opposition that it seems to steal any tension from the story.  Maybe that was intended.  

There was a dry patch before the trial started where I started to lose interest, but the initials set-up was enjoyable with some depressing sexual politics of the time thrown in. He is hired by a wife who knows her husband is having an affair. Instead of busting him, she wants Mason to help her with a scheme to turn the mistress from fantasy escape lover to annoying dependent, while she plays the positive one. It's actually probably a good strategy but depends on the woman accepting that she loves her husband or wants to keep the marriage no matter what. The ending was somewhat fun too and the solution to the murder more or less solid, though with some sketchy ballistics.  I found this in a box on my street and there was another one so I'll read that at some point.  It is unlikely I will make this series staple reading but glad to have finally been exposed to it.

On a sad note, in order to read this book I had to turn the pages, which separate them from the glue to the binding.  It always pains me and I'll try everything to give a book a chance to get another read, but this may be one paperback whose life has come to an end.

Monday, October 11, 2021

61. Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door by Wilt Chamberlain and David Shaw

Somebody has been slowly dropping off a large collection of 60s and 70s hardback non-fiction biography and autobiography books in the St-Viateur free shelf these last couple of weeks.  It's mostly Canadian and British political figures (you know you are getting old when you feel a teeny but quickly suppressed inkling to read a Joe Clark biography) so I was quite excited to stumble upon Wilt's autobiography.  I've educated myself on the hoops of the 60s and 70s with some recent sports journalism reads, so I was psyched to find an actual primary source on the subject.

A lot of this book is Wilt, coherently and convincingly, arguing against the consistent criticisms he faced throughout his career.  When you are exposed to the absolute insanity of his career stats (he led the leg in at least one of scoring, rebound or assists each of his 14 seasons) that go beyond his most famous exploits (10,000 women, 100 point-game), it does seem to suggest that people sort of had it out for him.  The two biggest critiques of him were: 1) that he wasn't actually that skilled or worked hard, just really big and 2) that he couldn't win when it counted.  Both are bullshit. There was a lot of tension and drama around Wilt and the other big men.  He and Russell went at it as did he and Kareem.  His supporting of Nixon is really an excellent example of a smart person being blinded by his wealth and privilege (comparably to some of these anti-vaxxer players today) and is for me Wilt's second biggest actual flaw.  

The biggest flaw is that, at least the way he tells it here, he is a little bit boring.  He seems like a really cool, intelligent life winner who isn't actually all that interesting, though probably a lot of fun to hang out with.  In some ways, he is kind of a superman who kind of transcends race and class at the time (relatively speaking).  He is certainly very outspoken about racism which he recognizes and calls out fairly frequently in the NBA and NCAA, but he seems to have mostly avoided actual ill effects by dint of his innate physical superiority and coolness.  So he doesn't play it safe, but somehow it all comes off very rational and even-keeled.  He goes through all his seasons and the playoff endings in some detail, which while interesting for a hoops nerd like me also makes the book unthrilling.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

60. Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Discovered this, plus another Ngaio Marsh and two Perry Masons in boxes of free stuff just down the street from me!  They were already beat up and then got some water damage from a light rain that had happened over night and that only freed me up to not have to worry about taking care of them.  My love for paperbacks started this way, back in the naive and carefree days when we did not think of them as collectibles but something cheap and portable.  It's nice to have a book every now and then that you can just throw in your bag and stuff in a pocket and not worry about keeping it in pristine condition.  After hearing how Eric from Paperback Warrior got a severe and weird lung infection, possibly from sitting amongst moldy books, I left these outside for a few days and took care to fan the pages and blow as much dust and whatever from them.

The book itself was another solid murder mystery from Marsh.  What made this one stand out was the nice (but sad because it was shattered by the murder) portrayal of the traveling theater company as well as the great look at New Zealand, Marsh's homeland.  Inspector Alleyn is supposed to be on vacation but of course gets mixed up in a murder. On the boat to New Zealand, he falls in with a theatre company. There is a minor kerfluffle on the train when the co-owner is almost kicked off the viewing platform.  His fate is sealed for good later when an elaborate birthday surprise for his wife and lead actress goes horribly wrong.  He had intended to lower a giant bottle of champagne, but somebody removed the counterweight and it smashed his head in. Bonus points for the Fontana photo cover which actually shows this (right down to the jeroboam larger-size champagne bottle).

Marsh is just a great writer.  I enjoyed this book more for the interactions and rich characters, especially the interesting insider writer writing as outsider visitor to New Zealand, than the mystery itself.  The Maori doctor is really great.  I almost wish he had a series of his own.  Fun read.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

59. Cybernia by Lou Cameron

This is another one that I picked up on a whim at Zoinks Music and Books in Toronto.  The design of this book hits my sweet spot.  I love the wacky but clear illustration and the choice of typeface and colours works for me.  The weird three (or maybe four) -eyed surveillance signpost on the cover even caught my daughter's eye, who asked me twice what it was about.  The image only symbolically represents anything that happens in the book as there is no Ridge or Centre streets, nor a signpost with a rubbery sphere with humanoid eyes atop it in the story.

The premise quite good.  A small town nestled in the remote forests of Norther New Jersey is run entirely by computer.  It does the maintenance, much of the security and manages all its own billing and paperwork. The protagonist, Ross MacLean is called there by his friend, who is starting to get paranoid that the town is out to get him.  Quite soon after the arrival, the friend is indeed killed in a freak accident.  I was hoping for some combination of The Demon Seed and The Corbin Affair but the book never really goes there.  There is a lot of early '70s engineering nerdiry that seems specific enough to suggest the author knew what he was talking about, but any science specifics are undermined by the inconsistent plotting.  It can't decide if it wants to be a thriller or a mystery and the one blocks the other, where we are guessing when it doesn't advance the story and everything is revealed too quickly and then we don't care.  There is also a lot of really dumb sexism which I can usually accept as an artifact of the time. Here the author seems to want to make a point of how woman can only push buttons and not understand any theory. It's honestly offensive. He also has to make a weird point of heterosexuality.  At one point, the town's elderly founder, a well-known theorist, invites Maclean to stay at his place, since he needs a place to stay and says "Don't worry, I'm heterosexual."  WTF early 70s?

There is a little bit of mayhem at the end where the programming of a sex robot gets wire-crossed with the town alarm system while all hell is breaking loose that is fun.  I also enjoyed learning about the Jackson Whites, but overall not a great book.  Too bad, because it sure looks beautiful!

I have found that Lou Cameron was an extremely prolific pulp author and comic book artist, who wrote the Longarm series (basically sex-western series, that I learned about from Paperback Warrior).

Saturday, September 25, 2021

58. Spook Country by William Gibson

I found the hardcover, first edition (from 2007 so not a huge deal, but still) of this for $1 at Value Village on Bloor St. West in Toronto.  My nephew expressed zero excitement when I gleefully showed him that it was signed.  William Gibson is probably one of my favourite authors.  Neuromancer was a massive influence on the way I see the world and love science fiction today.  I suspect it hit me at such a vulnerable age that some of his style and outlook imprinted on me so that today I may lack a critical eye on his work.  All that is to say I really enjoyed Spook Country.  

I actually haven't read Gibson since I think Virtual Light, when it came out, though I have a vague memory of having also read All Tomorrow's Parties as well.  Now that I have been re-introduced to him, I am going to have to keep an eye out for his other books.  Spook Country is a moden-day spy story from 2007 where the tech is actually outdated today.  Despite that, Gibson delivers all the tech theory stuff in a really interesting way that makes this book a marker of that time with some interesting thoughts for the present.

Ultimately, it's just a cool spy story, not particularily epic in nature, but the cool characters and intriguing set up keeps you turning the pages.  It has 3 main characters, each their own storylines that will of course eventually collide.  Milgrim is the educated addict kidnapped by a mysterious operative who makes him translate intercepted Russian text messages.  Hollis is the ex-lead singer of a semi-popular '90s band turned journalist hunting down a virtual reality designer.  Tito is the young member of a Cuban-Chinese espionage/crime family trained by Castro's KGB allies.  The last is really cool, a migrant parkourist and expert in systema, the family's anti-surveillance technique, who is basically kept in the dark until his skills are needed.

It doesn't quite end as satisfyingly as one would like, given how compelling their set-ups are.  The world and the characters are so enjoyable that you nevertheless don't want it to end and can forgive the mellow conclusion. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

57. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

This was the Edmund Crispin that came so highly recommend.  I think by Kenneth Hite, but I can't remember exactly.  I actually bought this new at one of the big bookstore chains.  I like but did not love the other Crispin I had read, so approached this with moderate hopes.  After having read it, I better understand his deal now.  These books are supposed to be funny, which I don't think I fully appreciated with The Case of the Gilded Fly.  The Moving Toyshop is not a masterpiece.  It goes on too long and the interesting part of the mystery is revealed early on.  I think it's main raison d'etre though, is not so much the mystery but to showcase the town of Oxford and the kinds of characters that live there.

The book starts with Cardogan, a poet (clearly of the upper classes because though he struggles with money he somehow has a home and a servant) who feels like he wants adventure in his life.  He also wants to avoid a poetry tour of America that his editor is pushing on him.  He goes to Oxford but has to hitch a ride and then walk in late at night.  Passing a toy store with a door ajar, he decides to go in.  Upstairs, he discovers the body of a woman and is then knocked out.  When he wakes up, he is in a closet at the back of the building, which no longer houses a toy store but a grocery shop and the proprietor and the cops think he may be suffering from delusions due to the concussion.

Enter Gervase Fen, literature professor and don.  This begins a madcap adventure of deduction and college hijinks, much of which is quite funny.  I will not seek out Crispons book, but I may well take the next one I stumble upon. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

56. The Q Document by James Hall Roberts

I found this book at the super cool Eyesore Cinema on Bloor in Toronto.  My nephew and I were tooling around the streets as we are wont to do when we get together and found it open.  We had come here a couple years ago and seen a backroom late-night screening of The Howling II so I had always wanted to stop by.  I was quite pleased to see they have a small bookshelf of paperbacks for sale. I first thought this was some bad non-fiction exposé that was some actual substantive origin of the nonsense behind those qanon fucks.  My nephew, in his teenage certainty was like "No, it's fiction." and he was right.

It is a bit hard to categorize this book.  It's sort of a thriller but not really thrilling.  The story is about, Cooper an academic living in Japan in the early 60s who has recently lost his wife and daughter in a fire.  He now translates ancient documents for a brothel owner with a side business in trafficked antiquities.  The brothel owner brings him a strange set of documents that were smuggled out of China and appear to be quite valuable.  As Cooper digs into them, he discovers that they seem to be proof that Jesus Christ was just a charismatic rebel who died and was never resurrected.  At the same time, he gets connected with an 11-year old girl who was sold into the brothel and then escaped.    

So the existential theme here is can Cooper take the responsibility of verifying the document that disproves Christ, thus destroying Christianity.  The more practical matter is protecting the girl.  The two become opposed.  

It's a very well-written book and I found myself absorbed in the narrative.  The descriptions of Japan, including lots of train scenes and a ski lodge, were enjoyable and seemed to be fairly accurate.  There is a lot of reflection by Cooper and the Pulitzer prize winning war journalist who has lost her mojo that he alllies with.  I usually don't go for that kind of wanking but for some reason it worked here.  Finally, the bad guy, the brothel owner is just a great character.  Always super polite and verbose, while being weirdly clean and yet also somehow kind of disgusting.

The big reveal that resolves all the conflict felt a bit cheap, as the author breaks some basic premises established earlier in the book so you couldn't have figured it out yourself. Despite that, I put it down satisfied.  Not a masterpiece or anything, but a nice obscure find and a good read.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

55. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

A friend lent me this graphic novel (same person who lent me Trashed and possibly even the Dahmer one; an excellent resource).  I plowed through it overnight.  It is thoroughly researched and does an excellent job of capturing what life was like on campus and in the town of Kent in the days leading up to the murder of 4 students by the National Guard in 1970.  It's really infuriating to read. Both because of the ignorance and authoritarianism of the time but also to know that the same kinds of assholes still have power and voices in America today.

Emotions aside, a graphic novel was an excellent way to enrich and remind me of the details of what went down.  It also really captures the horror of what it must have like to first have your campus taken over by redneck soldiers led by armchair fascists and then to have them actually open fire and gun down fellow Americans.  It is a period from which I have absorbed a lot of cultural and historical material, but now that we are living in a similar time of rupture, I realize that I had always treated it with some distance.  It's very scary to see your society fall apart and this comic captures that well.  

Monday, September 06, 2021

54. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald

I think I haven't been fair in my own mind about Ross Macdonald.  It's not his fault that his name remains as a pillar of the detective genre while his wife, whom I consider a better writer, is only remembered by a minority of genre fans.  I am also tainted by the last book of his that I read that I found to be overly melancholic.  I found The Galton Case at Valu Village in Toronto for a buck so had to take it, especially with this cool cover.  This is a paperback on its last legs, with pages ready to fall out, but it got one more read out of me and my friend wants it afterwards.

And I am glad I did read pick it up because it was really good and reminded me why Macdonald has his reputation.  There is a lot of detecting in The Galton Case!  Macdonald is hired by a lawyer to find the long lost son of the elderly matron of a vast fortune.  The investigation takes him up and down California, from hipster jazz bars and seedy hotels in San Francisco to new housing developments in mid-coast towns.  The first half of the book is a very enjoyable hunt for this missing man.  Once he is sort of found and a rough narrative of what happened to him becomes clear, we then move into another mystery of what did actually happen to him and if the newly discovered grandson is indeed who he says he is. There is even a strong Canadian connection, with Macdonald maybe even making a brief detour back to his own personal background.

This is pretty much a classic P.I. book, with the obligatory beatdown and unconsciousness (Archer actually gets knocked out 3 times in succession, which really can't be healthy), multiple twists that of course bring it all back home and just a lot of great dialogue.  The way that he talks to people to get information from them is particularly well done here.  Great stuff, I am glad to have re-opened my reading to Ross Macdonald.

Friday, September 03, 2021

53. StreetLethal by Steven Barnes

I found this in the very pleasant Zoinks Music and Books on west Bloor street in Toronto.  I liked this store because it was small and open but the shelves were stocked with a nice selection of used paperbacks in sci-fi, fantasy and crime.  It wasn't trying to be anything fancy while remaining easy browse with a good selection.  I grabbed StreetLethal because of the trashy 80s cyberpunk cover. 

It was the kind of read I was looking for, a gritty urban dystopic sci-fi with lots of action.  Unfortunately, it is kind of a mess.  The story contains too much so that much is left poorly explained and narratives die off.  It starts off with Aubry Knight, a weightless boxer, who I thought was just a contender, getting  betrayed and sent to a maximum security prison underground in Death Valley.  This was all really cool, the scenes of future LA and the idea of the prison itself.  But even early on there is a lot of time spent on Aubry's psychology, which is really unclear.  Somehow he is a total badass, yet also a rube and underling in the criminal organization that betrayed him.  He escapes, which was also cool, and meets a prostitute with a plastiskin implant that also makes her somehow unique, yet she too is sort of on the skids.  

He goes for payback against the gang and they end up in an underground society of scavengers and a much grander plotline involving a new drug that works with couples.  This is where the story really started to drag for me as there is a lot of time spent on their relationship most of which was neither compelling nor convincing.  They are both supposed to be damaged and need to learn to love themselves, each other, the Scavenger society but they are fighting and then not.  Then the drug is introduced and turns them into total junkies in about two pages.  It all got quite tiresome.  The bigger problem was that I never really felt a foundation of either of their personalities or backgrounds, so their struggles which were already somewhat incoherent, held no weight for me.

There was some cool ideas here and the cyberpunk ideas and locations were quite interesting at times.  One really impressive thing was that the future tech rarely felt dated, which is tough to pull off. It also had some decent fight writing.  It's too bad some of the major elements were not well thought out, especially the drug, which was either socially devastating and yet also going to bring love into the world.  The acknowledgements section suggests that Barnes was quite connected, perhaps in LA, as he drops some big martial arts names (Danny Inosanto for one) and sci-fi authors.

Damn, I just realized after reading some reviews that the cover art depicts a white guy but Aubry in the book is black.  White supremacy, indeed.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

52. Greenmantle by John Buchan

I am writing this review a few weeks after actually having finished reading the book.  I was having some trouble typing for long stretches so had to take a break.  I've read a few John Buchan books and it is only now that I am starting to understand the culture from which he comes that makes some elements of his book really weird.  It's not that complicated.  It's basically imperialistic jingoism but of a very specific period before we fully appreciated the enormity of World War I, so not always easy to parse for this modern reader.

Greenmantle is at its core a straight ahead espionage story.  Richard Hannae and a few of his other public school colleagues (and a rough-hewn Afrikaaner tracker) are sent into middle Europe in disguise to discover the source of rumours of some kind of prophet who will  unite the Moslem allies of Germany and turn the tide of the war.  There are several really exciting sequences such when he is on the run in the German countryside or trying to maintain his identity while being heavily scrutinized by an enemy agent.  There are also several really weird sections made weirder by the war is glory/just good sport that all men long for propaganda.  The reaction of the heroes to the female antagonist is also really twisted and full of bizarre sexual dread.  There is a very good piece here on the book that goes into in much better depth that is worth reading if you are interested.

One of the things that I found particularly difficult to swallow was how all these various British public school boys could not only go completely undercover in Arabic cultures, but also end up as their spiritual leaders.  It really is the stupidest kind of colonial "privilege".  Still, most of Greenmantle is really fun, just keep your critical monocle on as you read it.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

51. Shoedog by George Pelecanos

Found in one of the many free little libraries in the residential stretches that grid Toronto.  While I love living in a bilingual world, it is nice to have only english books to choose from. On the street I was staying there were three free book boxes alone (although it was the longest block in Toronto).I've read quite a few of George pelecanos novels and always enjoy him. However I feel I have a pretty good sense of his style and I'm not always interested in checking any of his newer books out. I am not sure what compelled me to take this one but I'm glad that I did.

This is a standalone crime novel about a young drifter who gets picked up by an older drifter slash criminal. At first it seems like they're just going to ride together to the South but then the older guy has to stop off to pick up some money. The place they stop at it's a big well secured house in the middle of nowhere outside of Washington DC with a big doberman in acage. Instead of the money the two of them get caught up in a double heist of liquor stores in Washington.

There is a secondary character, an African American shoe salesman in DC who also participates in the heist. The Narrative goes back and forth between the initial Drifter and the shoe salesman (who has the nickname Shoedog, thus the title).  What was cool about this book is that it really was a self-contained heist novel.  There are even parts that felt a lot like a Richard Stark book and I wonder if Pelecanos' had that in mind when he wrote it. However there's a lot more introspection and feelings about the characters than would ever occur in a Parker novel.

The drifter character felt very much like a young white male fantasy of the criminal life. He comes from a lower middle-class background with a mother dead of alchoholism and a disciplinarian, unfeeling father..   instead of going to a good college as his father had hoped he joins the military where he learns how to kick ass and shoot guns and then spends much of his life travelling all over America and the world working in restaurant and having sex and sometimes cool conflicts. Where the novel begins he is as aimless as ever and maybe looking for something but all that really seems to get him off is that buzz when he starts to do something Criminal. So the job is very appealing to him.

The shoe dog character on the other hand is more grounded. He's a Black guy who is one of the best salesmen at the shoe store and augments his income by doing heist jobs on the side and other crimes. He's basically an honourable fellow and you want him to succeed.

It's a fast-paced easily digestible crime novel with some cliches that were well portrayed and wrapped up in a unique enough exterior that they were never annoying. I would also add that if you are a car person there are several a detailed descriptions of very specific old style hot rods that you might find enjoyable. This is a great read for the summer.

Friday, August 06, 2021

50. Double for Death by Rex Stout

I have been looking for a Rex stout book for quite awhile as I am a fan of the Nero Wolfe old time radio shows. So I was quite happy to discover this book in the free box in my neighborhood. However when I got it open and started reading it I discovered it wasn't actually a Nero Wolfe book. I was mildly disappointed but soldiered on. 

The protagonist here is Tecumseh fox and his setup was equally as cool as that of Nero Wolfe. Tecumseh fox lives in a beautiful old estate in upstate New York with a diverse mix of querelous servants and helpers. His driver and dogsbody for instance has the title of vice president of his company and he also has a housekeeper and cook with whom they seem to have a slightly tense relationship. He also has various guests who stay with him in times of need. He just seems to be the gentleman detective who has enough money to lead a very pleasant lifestyle not far from New York City and indulge in exciting investigations in and around New York City with a panoply of resources both financial and social.

I later read that this was the best of the Tecumseh fox stories the other ones were not quite as interesting and I think were even considered sort of boring but I may be wrong about that I just went read one review. The setup itself ended up being more entertaining than the mystery which involved a wealthy man who was murdered in his secret cabin that nobody but his manservant knew about. Well almost nobody has the uncle of a young woman in distress who's come to Tecumseh had happened to sneak up to the cabin at night to try and beg the man to give him his job back. There is a switched identity and a lot of procedure around trying to find a missing man which was somewhat interesting and gave you lots of looks into New York City during this time. It's a decent novel but won't blow you out of the park I liked it mainly for Tecumseh Fox's world. I will continue to look for Nero Wolfe books.

I am not sure how the publisher convinced Bob Newhart to do this cover photo; maybe they were old friends or maybe Bob needed the money at this stage in his career.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

49. Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson

This is the second in the extremely readable Trickster trilogy.  I just keep enjoying these books more and more.  Among the many things I like about them, I particularily appreciate the way that they are structured.  It doesn't feel like it has to achieve some epic conclusion.  The structure feels much more like real life.  There are two broad stories going on here.  The first and the biggest in this book is just Jared Martin navigating his move to Vancouver, dealing with family and friends and enemies and school.  The second storyline is him being the Trickster's son and the risks and weirdness that comes with that.  It sounds fairly banal written like that, but Jared's life is so full of craziness that it is never boring.  I found the pace steady and engaging.  It never feels like you are being dragged into some "quest", rather you are just following along this young man as he tries to stay out of trouble and stay out of any kind of dependence on other people.

Given that he is a poor First Nations kid from Kitimat on a small scholarship to BCIT, he is actually relatively quite privileged.  His aunt is a successful author and activist. He has one grandmother who is super wealthy and another one who knows magic really well.  Despite this, Jared is super guarded and won't put his trust in anybody. People are also just really mean to him.  Felt very B.C from back in the day where everybody has to act super hard-bitten and people who are happy and confident are to be suppressed and distrusted.  It does become frustrating in the beginning.  The few people who are nice, Jared constantly pushes away and the rest who are total dicks, he just passively accepts.  The richness and realism of the people and the world of First Nations Vancouver that Robinson so well portrays pushes you past the frustration and when the supernatural part of the story explodes, it's just so insane that you are fully on board.

And the supernatural storyline, which hovers around and remains interesting but seems secondary for most of the book, really does explode at the end and really is bonkers with real ramifications for all the characters.  Robinson doesn't pull any punches.  It's an amazing mix of science fiction and indigenous mythology, which can be quite nasty.  I loved it and am using strong self-discipline to wait before jumping into the third.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

48. The Cricket Match by Hugh de Selincourt

Another street library find, along with a few other very British novels that I didn't take, that suggests to me an anglophile in the neighbourhood somewhere.  Though the game of cricket still utterly baffles me, I suspected this book would be enjoyable enough for everything else.  I am led to understand by the forward that this book is somewhat of a minor classic.

It takes place in a small British village in Sussex after WWI and before the threat of a second world war had started forming.  The whole thing takes place in a single day as we follow the various players on the village team as they prepare, play and celebrate a game of cricket against neighbour village Raveley.  There are conflicts and situations but nothing substantial gets resolved, there are no arcs, just the game and these people's (mainly men) lives.  

I really do not get cricket at all. Part of the problem here is also that even if I sort of understood how the game works (which I do very broadly), the vocab is completely lost on me.  Also, culturally, I can't always tell if some behaviour is an actual way of playing or if it is just British sportsmanship in this period.  It honestly felt like sometimes the opposing sides were working together.  Despite that, I was able to mostly follow what was going on and definitely enjoy myself and get caught up in the competition.  Even better, at times de Selincourt's descriptions of moments of athleticism were exciting and I wanted to reread them.  Somehow he really gets across the feel of the bat hitting the ball or a tough catch.

This was a very satisfying summer read.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

47. The Backup Men by Ross Thomas

The Porkchoppers is probably somewhere in my top 100 favourite books and I generally love the design of Ross Thomas's paperbacks, but I have to admit not loving the rest of his actual books that much.  He usually has a group of interesting characters and creative crime situations in cool locations that reflect the time well.  He has a tendency, though, to write in a simplistic, American macho style that lacks subtlety and makes said characters seem kind of annoying and trying way too hard.  In the end, it doesn't ruin the story for me, but I will only pick up his books if I find them for free and they look cool, as was the case with this copy of The Backup Men that I found in the free shelf.

McCorkle is the narrator as usual.  This time after some overly complex confrontations involving past relationships, they end up working on a job to protect a soon-to-be king of a new oil-rich middle-eastern country.  He is the last remaining heir to the throne and has to sign some papers which will make him the king and give a big deal to some oil companies.  A smart but gotten old assassin has hired a young killer and the two of them are trying to take the king out.  These are all connected to Padillo's past.  I am not sure if they actually do show up in other books or if they are just dragged out to make a plot, but it all felt a bit convoluted.  There was some decent action but nothing in it really seemed to matter to me.  I would give it an okay.  You can feel that the critic at the New Yorker is really trying hard with this blurb.

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.