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 (#2 in the Vorkosigan saga)

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 (#1 in the Vorkosigan saga)

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