Friday, May 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

33. The Time before This by Nicholas Monsarrat

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

32. The White Van by Patrick Hoffman

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

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

Monday, May 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 10, 2021

29. The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

27. Madam, Will you Talk? by Mary Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 02, 2021

26. The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

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

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

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

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

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