Friday, December 31, 2021

74. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Happy new year!  I found this in a free shelf in Berkeley and thought it would be a nice pallet freshener after the last read.  It indeed was.  This was the rare ocassion when I was glad to learn this was part of a series, as it comes in at an efficient 230 pages and leaves you wanting more.  It's very much in the vein of revisionary British period adventures like Fingersmith (though without the sexuality).  16 year-old Sally Lockman is left orphaned when her father dies at sea.  She later receives a strange warning and in following it, goes on a pretty fun London adventure, with an extended colonial backstory that would fit nicely in a Holmes case.  There is a side plot as well of her finding her way as a strong, practically-educated girl in Edwardian London, making friends and running a business.  I found the ending to be particularly touching, as it involves the love of a father for his lone daughter.  I will be looking for the rest of this series.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

73. The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Jesus, talk about a contrast.  After the find of the decade, I thought I would push my luck and grabbed this supposedly "brisk thriller".  I'd read The Moviegoer as a young man stupidly in love with the wrong girl who recommended it and found it okay.  I was hoping for an intelligent, interesting adventure book.  Instead, it delivered on neither the cover promise of a thriller nor the intelligent observations of a respected "literary" author.  The base plot was convoluted, unrealistic, uninteresting and false at its premise.  The literary observations were incoherent and vague, basically the empty, malformed musings of some old white guy who people told was smart too many times.  It's worse than just being empty and pretentious and boring; much of his musings range from cringey to mildly offensive to just gross.  There are multiple (and all unecessary) graphic descriptions of child pornography.  The racial politics are basically racism disguised under the veneer of the informed, yet wryly realistic liberal.  His female characters are ungraspable, especially his wife who is only described, has little or no dialogue or activity.

The plot, as it is, involves a doctor returning to his small Louisiana community after being in jail for 2 years.  There are lots of oblique hints as to why he went to jail, leading the reader to believe a full and interesting backstory will be revealed. This never happens. He soon discovers that his few remaining patients have radically different behaviours and personalities.  We eventually learn of a "conspiracy" to put some radiated sodium in the water that makes people less prone to criminal behaviour or something.  The whole thing is preposterous and boring and somehow connected to a school of pedophiles, which gives Percy his excuse to describe it all.  What's super fucking weird and creepy is that the abusers are all re-integrated into society and given jobs at the new institute for the dying (to replace the euthanasia centers; don't ask) which the protagonist puts together in the denouement.

The worst book I've read in a long time.  Took me almost two weeks to get through.  Feels like the editor said to him or herself "well this sucks but I can just stick Walker Percy on the front and we should sell enough."  The reviewers who said shit like "laced with escapes and chase scenes and risky, ingenious detective work" need their license  pulled.  

Friday, December 17, 2021

72. Where the Money Was by Willie Sutton

The paperback find of the year, arguably of the decade!  I've been scouring little libraries and book stores during these covid times, mainly in Montreal and Berkeley and it has been fun but no real mind-blowing  find until this one.  It was at the free shelf outside of Latina  on St-Viateur among a few older true crime paperbacks.  I have had this one on my list since I started the blog after reading that it was a big influence on Westlake's Parker character.  That is an exciting and satisfying moment when you finally stumble upon a real treasure.  One does a slow motion doubletake in one's head, "is this really what it looks like?  IT IS!!!"

I'm happy to report that the book itself is an enjoyable read.  It's surprisingly long.  Sutton spent most of his life in jail so this book actually has more prison escapes than bank robberies.  In the last third, as he gets older and sicker, he uses legal techniques to try and get out of jail.  This part drags a bit but you are invested so much at this point, that you want to find out what happens.  The best part for me are the bank robberies at the beginning.  It does seem like Sutton was brought into this world to heist banks.  He is like the Michael Jordan of bank robbery.  Beyond the anti-authoritarian appeal of the bank robber, Sutton never used violence and was a charming and stylish guy so he became pretty famous (which helped to get him out of jail early).

The description of the prisons are very informative about the corruption and cruelty at that time and how easily the prison-guard relation can turn into (or maybe always is) abuse.  It was just known that when you got arrested in Brooklyn, you were going to get a serious beating as part of your "interrogation".  When Sutton finally gets arrested the beating is insane (the cops are extra mad because he made them look bad).  Was painful to be reading the descriptions of the brutality in Attica and Sing Sing at the same time that Eric Adams just announced he is going to reinstate solitary in Ryker's.

As I say, I am more of a heist guy than prison escape guy, but the escapes in this book are wild.  There is a failed one trying to find the exit of a sewer tunnel that had me almost nauseous with stress.  Sutton just had no fear!  He goes through a 38" wide tunnel that slowly gets higher and higher with shit and piss and medical waste naked carrying a flashlight and a metal pole.  When there is only like a few inches of clearance and he still hasn't found the exit, so he ducks down and tries to swim for it!  

This book needs a reprint.  Still very relevant today for both fiction and non-fiction reasons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

71. Money Shot by Christa Faust

I actually "discovered" (sounds weird, thus the quotations) Christa Faust on twitter via some other film noir fans.  Turns out she is an author of several books and graphic novels, aside from having excellent taste in movies.  I found this Hard Case paperback at S.W. Welch (7$!) and jumped in, needing some good old pulp fiction after the my recent fantasy binge.

I am happy to report this is the kind of excellent updating of classic pulp that we are getting more and more of.  It's basically a revenge story set in criminal L.A. except the protagonist, Angel Dare, is a woman, an ex-porn star and now talent manager.  She gets suckered to come in to do a shoot as a favour to an old director friend, ends up getting sucker punched and thrown in a trunk. We start in the trunk. You keep turning the pages.  I won't go into the plot any more than to say broadly that she has to figure out why this is happening to her, get out of it and then go hunt down the people responsible.  

This book is pretty rough, with sex violence and sexual violence.  Punches are not pulled.  What I really enjoyed beyond the basic ass-kicking premise is that you get a realistic, non-moralistic insider's look at the porn industry. It turns the book from what would otherwise still be a pretty entertaining pulp read into an informative and interesting expose as well  Lots of great (in the book, generally quite seedy and depressing in real life) locations, a wide range of colourful and often fucked-up characters all with realistic little details that lets you feel that Faust knows of what she writes.

I don't know what to say about what a book like this says about pulp and gender.  A smarter person than me should do a side-by-side analysis with Megan Abbott's Queenpin.  For me, it is just refreshing to read this kind of fiction from a female perspective where the women have agency and sexuality that is their own.  Good stuff.

Oh snap, there's a sequel with the same character!  I loved how this one ended, without a big explanation, but the nerdy part of me did want to find out how it all played out.  Very happy to add Choke Hold to my shopping list.

Friday, December 03, 2021

70. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

I had to rush out and buy book 2 I so much enjoyed the first one.  I don't have a lot to say to add to that review.  This one gets deeper into the magic and history and we get a clear track on the big picture plot. I had a couple of plot issues around the way they defended their geode home from the colonizing Sanzed (why didn't they just go full orogeny from the beginning and why was the attack of the stone eaters seen as some big surprise?).  I also found more reliance on unsourced anger as a conflict-creating/story-prolonging device wearisome at times.  If Alabaster and Essun would stop arguing and just talk, we would have had most of the mystery revealed in a few days instead of having all this fake anger and not communicating normally.  When the story picks up in the last third, we don't have time for the anger and again it gets really kickass.  Going to take a short break but will probably pick up the third soon.