Wednesday, March 31, 2021

13. Kingdom of Gods: Book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

I really had a hard time getting through the final book of this trilogy.  Part of it was me, I was preparing to travel back to Canada and quite distracted about covid and getting through the border and leaving my elderly parents.  I wanted to finish the trilogy so I wouldn't have to carry the monster tome (all 3 books were in a single volume) back with me.  I had also hoped that some deep fantasy would help me escape from my mental gyrations.  It definitely did not work in this case. so I really just churned through it rather than truly enjoying it.

Trying to be objective about the content, I think that though the storylines in all 3 books connect, there is not really an overarching narrative that unites them.  They are just one saga after another about how the gods relationships evolve and then impact the human world.  The world-building was really cool here and seemed to have a lot more potential as now we have Godlings and Demons alive in the world of humans.  Unfortunately, the book is all about Sieh, who was annoying and whiny in the first two.  Now we get an entire book via first person of this perpetually dissatisfied character who basically also loses his agency as he becomes mortal. A lot of really crazy stuff happens, but we barely experience it as most of the story is about his relationship with his dad and mom and uncle and potential lover.  It just didn't do it for me.  

I have the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy and was kind of hoping I could just give it away as it is thick and taking up a precious two inches on my overloaded on-deck shelf.  Unfortunately or fortunately, I discovered that the internet strongly recommends reading it if you didn't like the Inheritance trilogy, many people who couldn't even finish the Inheritance Trilogy loved the Broken Earth.  So on the shelf it stays!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

12. Fourth Down, Death by Michael T. Hinkmeyer

Berkeley, CA is lousy with free book boxes.  There are three within a block or two of my parents house and you can't go for a walk of any distance without encountering one.  Fortunately for me now, most of the content is of the literary fiction variety, though I did find a couple of older somewhat interesting paperbacks that I might have picked up in times of a lighter on-deck shelf.  It is still fun to check them out and adds a little fun to an already pleasant walk (though it has lost its funkiness and gone depressingly upscale, Berkeley still has the most beautiful residential neighbourhoods in probably the world).  

I finally gave in against my better judgement (and goal to read the books I brought with me on this trip) and picked up this first edition hardback.  It seemed like one of those enjoyable, readable mysteries of the 80s that always have the subtitle "An [name of slightly interesting regional detective with an ongoing mild personal drama] mystery".  In this case, the detective is Sheriff Emil Whippletree of St. Cloud, Minnesota.  He is a very likable sheriff, easygoing and flexible with his men, the kind of hero you want to doggedly keeping plugging away at a murder while more powerful, nefarious forces try to stymie his investigation.

The investigation here begins first with the wife of a professor at the local private university (Christian, big football team) having a vision just outside the stadium which holds up traffic to the big game.  Emil then discovers in the forest nearby the body of a coed, neck and wrists broken, possibly violated.  She was part of a special seminar group that had studied late on Friday and all the students are suspects.  This leads us to a fairly complex (but not too hard to follow) tangle of threads including a conservative department head trying to ouster a young liberal professor, the charismatic president of the university running interference on the investigation while his vice-president seems to be jockeying for his own run at the presidency, the head of campus security threatening to run for sheriff at the next election, Emil's own niece being in the class of the murder victim, the growing crowd of worshippers coming to see the visions and on and on.  There is a lot going on in this mystery and it keeps the pages turning.  It is all kind of masculine, not in a big macho way but just that the women all are in secondary roles.  Emil's wife in particular seems very endearing but really only adds colour (though pleasant colour).  This was also written in the time before police departments became standing armies.  It is a nice escapist fantasy to think of a under-budgeted Sheriff who knows everybody in town and makes decent-minded judgement calls.  Not a person of colour in sight, and though it is Minnesota, I do feel it had some ethnic diversity in the mid 80's.

I found the solution to be not quite as complex and intertwined as the tangle of narrative threads had suggested.  It was also wrapped up with a plot flourish that seemed a bit contrived.  That's all okay, though.  This is a solid, enjoyable regional mystery.  I would check out another Emil Whippletree book if it crossed my path.

Oh very funny, I read a bio of the author and it turns out he has also written historical romances under the nom de plume of Vanessa Royall.  I thought that the name rang a bell and then I realized that Emil's wife is reading a book by her in this book!  Well played, Mr. Hinkmeyer.  :)

And not so funny, found that Mr. Hinkmeyer passed away the year before last (just missed the pandemic).  Sounds like he ended up having a good life for himself, living in the Hamptons year round on his writing money. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

11. The Broken Kingdoms: Book 2 of the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

I felt I needed to dive back into some kind of fantasy after the roughness of No Beast So Fierce.  Because I had brought a big pile with me that I intended to leave here and the other remaining books were also noir or non-fiction, I forced myself to go back to The Inheritance Trilogy, despite my earlier concerns.  I'm glad I did because, though this book still got pretty godly, I found it very absorbing and entertaining.  This book takes place after the revenge of the Gods and Godlings against Bright Itempas which thus overthrows the order and power of the Amaneri and thus making the world much more interesting.

The protagonist here, Oree Shoth, is a blind artist who sells her work to pilgrims at the gate which has the best view of the giant tree that grew to take over the city of Sky when Itempas was felled.  She also has some kind of latent magical ability that allows her to see magic and to paint some kind of magic.  The story begins when she finds a body in the trash near her house, a body which turns out not to be dead.  It's some kind of mute being who seems mortal but is constantly dying and then resurrecting the next day.  In this new world, Godlings live among the humans in Sky (though not outside of the city) and while worshipped and with magical powers are also entwined in their lives and affairs.  One is murdered in an alley and Oree is the one to find it, which brings her to the attention of the Bright Order, who are kind of the local asshole stormtrooopers.  She then gets caught up in an adventure involving figuring out her strange companion and dealing with a new force capable of murdering Godlings.

This one has more action at the human and Godling level compared to the first one which is much more cosmic.  The depth of the history of the gods really shows here. It builds on the mythology of the first in an interesting way that makes you think about themes of power and religion.  Jenisin's notion of good and evil, bright vs. dark is nuanced and satisfyingly non-binary.  A god who is evil in the first book is revealed to have much more complexity to its backstory which changes your perspective on everything else.  I'm glad I pushed through my hesitation after the first one and will complete the trilogy.

Friday, March 26, 2021

10. No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

I grabbed this on a rare whim at the now-reprieved SW Welch used bookstore.  I can't remember what possessed me because at that point, my on-deck shelf was way too long (and now it is overflowing).  I brought it and several others that I had been stalling on to my emergency medical trip to my parents, since I figured there would be a lot of reading time.  I didn't have as much reading time as I thought, but did get steady reading in.  

I had just finished the Georgette Heyer and was not feeling ready for gritty crime. My heart sank as I started this one, as it not only was gritty crime, but also darkly realistic and self-conscious.  I was not feeling enthusiastic about a contemplative take of a life of poverty and crime.  The book takes place in LA in the early 70s.  The protagonist, Max Denbo, is a career criminal just released from 8 years in prison for check forgery. He got an extra long sentence because of all his previous crimes and has decided to go straight.  The descriptions of poor and criminal LA was quite well done and that kept me going.  After several humiliating and anxiety-inducing punishments by his blindly righteous parole office, and just becoming more and more aware of how impossible it will be for him to go legit, Denbo does an about face and decides to become a complete criminal.  

The book really takes off here. Denbo starts moving up in his crimes, through a mix of solid planning and excellent criminal instincts, from ripping off a corner store to break-ins and finally a big jewelry store.  He gains a couple of allies and a fun divorcee girlfriend (who, though excited by his criminal status, does not yet know the full depths of his nature).  Because the stuff happening is so well-written and the protagonist isn't just being victimized, the editorial sections where he waxes poetic about society and his criminal nature mix much better than at the somewhat heavy opening part.  The trajectory is not surprising, but is done in a dark and meaningful way that really resonated with me. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

9. The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer

This is the second Georgette Heyer and while I am glad there are quite a lot of them, I know that I am going to have to parse them out carefully.  She is like a box of delicious chocolates.  Each one is scrumptious but as soon as you finish it, you just want to eat the next one.  By the time you finish the box, you just feel a bit sick and can't separate one chocolate from the other in your memory.  So patience!

The story here is about Earl St. Erth, a succesful soldier returning home from Waterloo to his estate, which has been effectively run by his cousin and populated by his mother-in-law and her son, Martin (his half-brother).  These latter two had been assuming the Earl would be killed and that Martin would become the earl.  Martin has been spoiled by his mother and is already a hothead.  The earl is very good-looking, charming and skilled and also quite chill.  Martin doesn't hate him but gets quite heated up and this gets acute when the earl charms the young girl in town whom Martin (and many other boys) had been circling.  Things get somewhat more serious when several near-accidents and finally an attempt at murder befall the earl.  Is it Martin?  Suspicion and polite tension abounds.  I failed to mention the mousy yet supremely practical Miss Morville, who is the dowager's friend (at least tolerates her) and thus always around to help out in the action. 

This is probably the first full-on hardcore romance novel I have read.  The mystery and very light gothic elements are secondary to the subtle at first, but quite obvious in the second half potential of a match between the debonair and self-assured earl and the equally self-assured but sexless (at least on the surface) daughter of progressive intellectuals.  It's a great match and resolved in an extremely satisfying way to the point that my allergies may have acted up every so slightly and I was forced to blow my nose.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

8. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Book 1 of the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

I've been meaning to read Jemisin for quite a while now.  I almost bought The Fifth Season but then I found her entire Inheritance trilogy and The Fifth Season somewhere I can't even remember now, but free.  It's a big book!  Fortunately, quite large type and spacing so a quicker read than the size would suggest.

It starts off quickly and interestingly.  The initial situation of a young woman from the outer, barbaric provinces being summoned to the sophisticated, dangerous capital and suddenly put in a position of power reminded me a lot of The Goblin Emperor.  Here, Yeine is the granddaughter of the patriarch of Sky, a fantastical city whose people have enslaved the gods, giving them ultimate power over the entire world.  Yeine's mother was the heir apparent but then for reasons to be discovered, was exiled.  Her grandfather has brought her back because it is the time of the succession and she must battle with her two cousins to become the ruler.  

It is a cool premise and the world is compelling, rich and very well thought out, especially the cosmology and history of the gods.  For me, though, the main thrust of the narrative was not really super engaging.  It is really about Yeine and her relationship with these enslaved gods and their plot to free themselves.  I am more interested in the lower-level diplomacy and strategy among the mortals than epic battles of existence.  I can see why this book received so much praise.  It's very well-written and definitely achieves the goal of fantasy to take you to another world.  There is some pretty wild sex with gods scenes as well. Hot stuff!  So my appreciation of the book is more about my taste than a critique of the book itself.  Now I am in a bit of a dilemma because I am only mildly curious to read the next book yet I have this huge tome I must finish.  If it switches perspective and the narrative takes place at a more grounded level, I might quite enjoy it.  I would like to learn more about the world and Jemisin is skilled enough to make those parts really good.  There just weren't enough of them.  If it is more of the war between the gods stuff, I will not be so interested.  Should I just plunge ahead?

Saturday, March 13, 2021

7. A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson

I found this book among the big dump in my alley.  The guy had a lot of classic fantasy and a lot of WWII including a some hovering a bit too close to Nazi interests.  This one I grabbed, though it was beat-up, as I had heard the name and felt there was a Canadian connection.  It is the story of William Stephenson who was the head of the BCS (British Security Coordination, basically underground intel ops and the precursor to the OSS) during WWII and the main liaison between Churchill and Roosevelt in coordinating intelligence operations in the time before the US got fully into the war.  Stephenson himself preferred to stay in the shadows, he had no title and collected no salary and basically didn't say anything about any of his work until this book came out.  Much of it fell under the Official Secrets Act as well.  When this book came out, it was kind of a big deal.  Supposedly, Hugh Trevor-Roper savaged it and said much of it was untrue.  While there were some pieces that did not bear out under scrutiny, most of it has been confirmed since, as more and more of the truth was allowed to be released.

It's not a great book, technically speaking.  I can understand why a historian would be critical. The first half is kind of sloppy, with timelines not being clear nor arguments.  It gets tighter and more entertaining in the second half, where several major BCS operations are detailed including Operation Jubilee where they sent a fake invasion to Dieppe a year before D-Day to trick the Nazis into thinking that would be the main point of attack and to steal radar equipment; a bombing raid on a gestapo office in Denmark to kill and/or free Danish guerillas about to be interrogated; the spy CYNTHIA who seduced many men working for Vichy France to get codes, convincing deluded and pacific Danish physicist Neils Bohr to escape (and then getting him out in the belly of a plane where he almost suffocated because the comms with the pilot got disconnected and he never put on his oxygen mask). Just a ton of really cool spy and military stories that really happened.  It's crazy the risks and danger and just straight up discomfort these brave men and women put themselves in, many who barely got paid and who still aren't recognized today.  Contrast their real heroism—where you would send one person in to enemy territory who had the knowledge with another who didn't just so the second person could shoot the first if they got captured—to these fake-ass MAGA shitbird "patriots" who have deluded themselves into thinking they know what it means to fight for freedom.

One of Stephenson's biggest goals was to get the US onside to support the British.  Roosevelt was from the beginning, but a large part of America and an even larger part of Congress were against going to war.  On top of that, Nazi spies had infiltrated many parts of American society to further encourage that isolationism.  Likewise, Nazi propaganda at low and high levels was used to convince Americans that Britain was doomed to lose, that their was potentially great economic opportunity with a united Nazi Europe.  It is really interesting to read about how Roosevelt had to tread extremely lightly to not excite the isolationist mood of the country and congress.  The BCS was kept totally hidden because it was illegal for a foreign entity to practice espionage on US soil and knowledge of their existence would have been a huge scandal and strong ammo for the isolationist side.  I would love to read a better analysed history of those issues.  It was a strong reminder that the kind of selfishness that grew under Trump has been around in America for a long time.

It was a bit of a slog for the first half, but got quite exciting at the end.  I don't take away a ton from it historically speaking, but it definitely gave me a nice perspective on the origins of today's intelligence culture.

Friday, March 05, 2021

6. The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

This book was given to me in this trade paperback form by a friend who was clearing out his shelves.  I took it because I had heard of the film as well as Fearing's name.  I would have loved the original though normally I do appreciate some of the choices the NYRB puts out.  In this case, though, the introduction was really godawful and made me annoyed at the entire publication.  I don't know who Nicholas Christopher is but I hope he is not chosen to write an intro for this kind of book ever again.  His essay is mostly a recap of the entire storyline overlaid with pretentious and meaningless undergrad-style literary analysis.  So that is not just a waste of space since you are going to read the book anyways, but also full of spoilers.  There are tidbits of helpful biographical detail on Fearing.  However, Christopher seems to be wholly ignorant of the culture of post-war America and of the genre of crime and suspense fiction of the time.  He seems utterly confounded by the coded way sexuality is portrayed in the book and attributes it to the author as a failure rather than the standard of the times. Worse, though, it is just dripping with the kind of insecure, condescending literary snobbishness.  He laments that Fearing's poetry was somehow ruined by his other writing: "it is unfortunate that he never managed to insulate his poetic faculty from the wear and tear of hack journalism, pulp writing and public relations assignments".  Fuck right off. 

Sorry to rant about the introduction.  I read it after reading the book (as I always do) and it set me off.  Just gross and a big failure by the usually solid NYRB editors.  On to the book. It is the story of George Stroud, editor at a succesful and innovative crime magazine whose publishing house is struggling against competition. Stroud is the man in the gray flannel suit except with a bohemian twist (he likes art) and a more varied background (he had many other jobs including running a bar before settling down to the commuter life).  He ends up having an affair with the girlfriend of Earl Janoth, the powerful, charismatic boss of the publishing house and he drops her off at the end of a weekend getaway to see her run into said boss outside her apartment. The boss and she get in an argument, starting with his jealousy but then escalating into counter-accusations of homosexuality where the boss flips out and beats her to death with a heavy decanter.  

The book gets quite interesting here with a very similar setup to Chase's You Find Him, I'll Fix Him.  Janoth thinks he is in the clear except for the guy who dropped off his girlfriend (he didn't recognize him), so he needs to find that guy and silence him.  He chooses Stroud, because he is known for his investigative skills, to hunt this guy down.  Basically, the boss has ordered Stroud to hunt himself.  It becomes a complex cat and mouse game where Stroud leads a team to try and find himself while actually trying to delay the discovery for as long as possible.

It's lively and tight, with viewpoints changing from chapter to chapter, so we also get a fairly critical look at the main character as well, who is kind of a heel.  The ending is quite fun as well and fast, which I also enjoyed.  It is also quite realistic about sex in the city in 1946, which I think the film does not portray at all. It's a bit more poetically written than I usually appreciate and at first it kind of annoyed me.  That was the voice of Stroud.  As I got used to it, though, the prose became more natural. There is a lot of subtle depth here, with hints at corporate intrigue and inter-office politics and some nice asides about working for the system (the big clock).

Monday, March 01, 2021

5. The Cat's Paw by James Heron

I found this among a treasure trove of older paperbacks in one of those free book libraries, this one situated in the Little Italy/Rosemont neighbourhood below the Jean-Talon market.  I found a Ross Thomas and several WWII thrillers as well as a near-complete set of some historical work on Nazism.  It was slightly creepy so I left that.  I wasn't expecting much from this one but just loved it as a beautiful classic British 70s thriller.  I mean look at it!  Also in excellent condition.

I was further pleased to discover upon reading that it has a really cool premise.  It's preposterous but just enough.  The protagonist, Charles Hutchison is back in England after years in Nigeria.  He's down on his luck and nursing a drink in a bar where his last job interview fizzled when he is accosted by a man who looks almost identical to him.  This man, James Fitzpatrick, is equally surprised and they get to talking.  Hutchison pours out his life to the charming and wealthy Fitzpatrick who invites him to his office next week for a proposition.  

After some research (learning that Fitzpatrick is the chairman of a very successful publishing company) and trepidation, Hutchison makes the appointment. There he is met by Fitzpatrick and his efficient and gorgeous secretary. After asking him to strip and poring over his personal details, they make their proposition. Fitzpatrick is sick of his life and wants to leave it for 2 years to write a book on birds. For a significant amount of money and controlling stake in the company, he wants Hutchison to impersonate him for those two years.  As I said, preposterous, but Fitzpatrick and the author have thought it out well enough that you do believe it could work.  I won't go into details beyond some surgery and a fake breakdown, but you buy into it.

Of course, things are not what they seem and much of the fun of this book is first following Hutchison as he tries to fake his way into this new world and then second following him as he unravels what is really going on.  The second part is not as tight as an investigation as I would have like and many of the other characters are not all that clever.  Overall, though, the ride is a lot of fun.  There is also a ton of sex. This guys is getting laid constantly, with a wide variety of women who enjoy a wide variety of sexual practices.  Even with that, the relationship between Hutchison and "his" (actually Fitzpatrick's wife) is kind of fun and romantic.  Fitzpatrick was a workaholic who didn't really love her and didn't want the kids whereas Hutchison really likes children and comes to appreciate the wife.  It makes for an enjoyable side plot.  Quite a nice little find and will go on the shelf for its beauty and its content.

Such a sexy book I had to do a 3/4 angle