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.