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.