Friday, September 23, 2022

49. Deathworld 3 by Harry Harrison

The third Deathworld had some cool action and adventurous moments, but the overall appeal of this series is somewhat lost on me by this point.  The main idea that drives it seems to civilize the uncivilized so we can exploit their resources, which is colonialism as far as I can tell.  Here, Jason is getting bored and desperate with the planet Pyrrus as the city's population is slowly but inexorably reduced by the constant attacks by the planet.  He comes up with a plan to take a giant starship to an abandoned mine and I guess make a ton of money so they can find a new place to live.  The mine planet has a really cool geography; the mine is on the north side of giant cliffs that split the long narrow sole continent.  This is an arid, mountainous land of savage barbarian nomads (who drove away the original mine owners).  Jason's plan is to infiltrate them and then somehow take over and change their culture so they will accept the presence of offworlders exploiting their natural resources and disrupting their migratory culture.  By the end, he succeeds but in a much more destructive way involving helping the north invade the more advanced south.  Really quite horrible in a certain sense, but it is all presented as an intellectual challenge and a clever victory for narrator Jason DinAlt.  I think Harrison was a pretty progressive guy for the time.  This book feels much more in line with nerd individualism fantasy.  Despite the questionable morals, the middle of the story is as fun as the first two, with a cool, well thought-out setting.  There are also some well-told battles and cool tech.  It feels like Jason DinAlt did not really justify a series and it petered out on its own.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

48. The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat

Monsarrat continues to deliver.  He is making a place for himself in my pantheon of favourite writers.  I haven't read a dud by him yet and he works in a range of genres.  The Kappillan of Malta is the story of a priest in what was known as Fortress Malta during WWII.  It's also a story of Malta itself.  The book opens in the 60s (contemporary from when the book was published) with a narrator taking a touristic trip to Gozo, a smaller island to the north of Malta.  There he encounters a massive funeral for a priest and he meets an old giant pushing a one-legged dwarf in a wheel chair. This odd pair relates the story of Father Salvatore.  This is the bulk of the book, with Father Salvatore dealing with his aristocratic family (and supporting his mother who barely holds their estate together), the judgemental church elders and his flock sheltering in giant catacombs as Malta is blockaded and bombed.

The book is structured around the historical sermons that the priest delivers to lift morale.  These are interludes that allow Monsarrat to relate several important chapters in Malta's history where they dealt with war and invasion and survived.  Each was a great little mini-fictionalized history, informative and entertaining.  I learned a lot about Malta, of which I was almost totally ignorant.  It's also quite moving, with many great characters, especially Nero the super positive dwarf.  His introduction, as the only voice of spirit during a boat ride after the first bombing, is particularly compelling. "Nero wheeled round, and began to run and jump and skip up the street, as if he could not wait to confront his next problem."  There are no direct antagonists, but the two most hateful characters: manipulative and small-minded monsignor Scholti and traitorous brother-in-law Lewis Debrincat are extremely effective.  There is also a romance between his niece and a cliched but still well-drawn rakish British pilot.

It has a relaxed narrative, confident that the situation itself is compelling, not needing forced conflicts.  I found myself caught up in Father's Salvatore's various plights and problems, even his spiritual agonizing.  Great read.


 

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

47. The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

I found this, if my memory serves, in the big dump of smokey, food-stained nerdy paperbacks and other belongings from some poor soul living in the rental apartment down the street from me.  I had it on my on-deck shelf for when I was ready for a nice, absorbing vacation read but ended up grabbing it now at the end of the summer just because it is thick and I need room on my on-deck shelf!

What can I say here of any depth, beyond that it delivered exactly what I had anticipated.  Another easy to read, enjoyable, funny and brutal fantasy novel.  The Heroes is fun because it is very focused, unlike the epic First Law trilogy that precedes it.  It all takes place in three days in a single location.  The story is entirely about a battle between the "barbarians" of the North and the civilized Union of the South.  Not only do we get a beautifully illustrated map of this pastoral valley, but each of the three sections of the book updates the map with the various military positions at the end of each day.  This was all super helpful for me to picture the action and be clear on what was going on, though I suspect that Abercrombie's writing is clear enough that one could still figure it out without the maps.

Many of the characters from the First Law trilogy show up here and some of the lesser ones get a full expansion.  We also have some new ones.  As usual, we get all the wide range of grim, cynical and funny characters that make the other books so enjoyable.  If you are more into the fantasy and politics and less the fighting and Named Men, you may not love this one.  However, if you are into crunching medieval combat and rich, funny brutal warriors, this is the book for you.  He even has an annoying warrior keener, in Whirrun of Blight, who loves to fight and is always super enthusiastic, a hilarious counterpoint to the mostly grim and weary members of his dozen.

Just a lot of fun and it reminded me how much I enjoyed The First Law.  There is another trilogy taking place the next generation down that I will be keeping an eye out for, but will have to save it for later is it will always be readily available and I have an overflowing on-deck shelf to deal with now.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

46. The David Bowie Story by George Tremlett

I am not interested at all in music journalism, nor particularly in David Bowie's story.  I took this book almost purely on aesthetics alone.  Look at that cover!  It's really not a good book, though I am glad I read it as it spurred me to go back and listen to Bowie's earlier music.  It's funny that this book was published in 1974 and honestly the text itself implies that his story is over more or less at the time of publication.  This book really should have been subtitled: "The Kenneth Pitt story, my good friend who is also very cultured unlike most music agents and how David Bowie made a terrible mistake in not listening to Kenneth which ended up delaying his success by two years!"

Seriously, the bulk of the first half of this book is a fawning apologia to Kenneth Pitt who was indeed Bowie's first agent and whom Bowie dismissed after a few years.  The tone has a slightly moralizing, superior air, chastising Bowie for not doing things the way Pitt and a traditional pop star should and elaborating on all the ways Kenneth Pitt (and his lovely house in the country) is a decent and cultured man, not at all like most music agents.  I almost suspect the author and Pitt were lovers.  We do get some actual facts about Bowie's upbringing, though even there it veers into how not only did Bowie not invite his own mother to his wedding, he didn't invite Kenneth!

The second half is a bit more informative, with a fairly detailed narrative of Bowie's tour in the United States, his growing relationships with other celebrities at the time and his own struggle with early fame.  When you peel away the inconsistent structure (he jumps around a lot in time and often repeats the same message in slightly different ways), though, there is a nice history here that gives some insight into Bowie's mercurial creativity and the scene he came out of.  I always respected Bowie's work, but it never grabbed me and I think a big part of that is because he is really an experimental artist who was constantly trying everything within the framework of popular music and culture.  I am guessing that some have accused him of simply being a chameleon, but reading this book did make me feel that he was genuine in his artistic exploration (unlike say the more cynical Madonna) and definitely a truly talented and charismatic performer.  



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

45. The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

This third book in my foray into the Vorkosigan saga has given me a good idea of why it is so popular.  This was a really fun read!   I was wavering about staying with this series but The Warrior's Apprentice has convinced me to stick with it.  There is a certain lightness to it that I suspect is indicative of the time it was written (1986) and makes it lack the rigour and narrative "realism" we get in 21st century sci-fi.  There are some early coincidences as well as some victorious tactics (like when they figure out about taking over the enemy's remote control combat suits) that felt a bit too easy. As I read on, the propulsive narrative and sympathetic characters made those slight hiccups of believability acceptable.  I also suspect that the style and narrative decisions will evolve as I make it through the series.

This book starts out with Miles Vorkosigan failing out of the Barrayan military academy in the physical test (he was poisoned in the womb in the first two books and is thus stunted with super weak bones and he breaks both his legs jumping off a wall that he should have climbed down).  At a loss what to do, he travels to the Beta Colony, with his bodyguard Bothari and Bothari's beautiful daughter Elena (whom Miles loves) to visit his maternal grandmother.  Here is where the random events get a bit wild.  He eavesdrops on some officials having an argument, gets involved and ends up buying an old ship (and its bereft captain) that was about to be scrapped.  He also, in a similar bit of luck, runs into a Barrayan deserter who just happens to be an excellent ship's engineer.  With just these two, Miles and the Botharis take on a mission to smuggle weapons to a distant planet locked in a civil war.  It all felt a bit far-fetched.

But once they get to the distant planet, the fun really begins. There is challenge after challenge, starting with trying to get through the blockade, manned by a mercenary force.  Immediately, Miles is put to the test, as the customs officers decide to take Elena back with them as a hostage (and probably worse).  His quick thinking and Bothari's ass-kicking get them out of this jam but lead them into a deeper one.  Each step of their adventure, the challenge gets more difficult and Miles demonstrates his leadership and strategic instincts.  He slowly accumulates assetts, but also all built on a small white lie that ends up him first impersonating and then becoming the admiral of a fake mercenary force.  The whole thing grows wildly out of control, yet also successful as more people become his followers and he slowly starts to turn the tide of the civil war.  As this is going on, we also get bigger narratives of Elena's birth and complex internal politics back at Barraya, where Miles' father's enemies are using his disappearance to make a move.

I ended up staying up late to finish it.  This is an easy and entertaining page turner.  The only issue is that it can be hard to find these books used, but that will allow me to pace myself.  I am making a note here that it is okay for me, nay recommended, to go back and read the wiki on the plot for this book before I read the next one, so that I am up to speed.


Saturday, August 27, 2022

44. Public Enemy Number One: The Alvin Karpis story by with Bill Trent

I found this next to the find of the decade (possibly the century), the Willie Sutton book.  It turns out that this is also a pretty sweet little gem.  It's a Canadian book that grew out of a long article in Weekend magazine (which I think I read quite often as a kid, when it did turn up in our home).  Karpis himself was technically Canadian, having been born in Montreal (and sent back there briefly in 69 when he finally got out of jail), though he spent most of his life in the States (and his excessive criminal behaviour and use of firearms was certainly more American than Canadian).  It has an excellent cover.  I don't know if Westlake read it, but it has a very similar ethos to Where the Money Was.  It is interesting that neither of them mention each other in their books.  They were doing crimes around the same time and Karpis worked and crossed paths with a lot of famous criminals from this period.  Perhaps it was a regional thing, as Karpis worked mainly in the midwest.

What struck me about this book was how regional the United States was in the 1930's.  It seemed you really could drive for a few days a couple states over after robbing a bank and the cops and FBI did not have a way of tracking you or communicating quickly enough so that you could then rob a bank in the next state.  Eventually, it all did catch up with him.  His capture spelled the end of the wild Depression-era criminals.  This book covers his childhood briefly but mostly deals with the period of his life as a criminal.  We really don't learn at all what his 35 years in prison (the longest serving inmate in Alcatraz) were like and the narrative sort of jumps around.  It makes it less rich than Sutton's biography, though perhaps even more wild.  Similar to Sutton, Karpis was methodical and liked to plan, but he really took some crazy risks and had some bonkers shootouts compared to Sutton.  

What stood out for me in the book is his critique of the FBI and particularly J. Edgar Hoover.  We all know he was a scumbag today, but when the book was published in 1970, it was probably an eye-opener for people to learn that he totally lied about arresting Karpis (Hoover claimed he arrested him in his car, stopping Karpis from reaching for a rifle in the back seat; Karpis said Hoover only came out after many other G-men had him surrounded and it is a fact that he was in a two-seater with no backseat).  Hoover also spread the story about Ma Barker (who was the mother of Freddie Barker, Karpis' partner in the Karpis-Barker Gang) being this evil old lady mastermind. Karpis (and others since) shredded that lie used to justify gunning down an old lady, showing that while she was generally aware her sons were criminals, she was mostly kept in the dark and basically a simple hillbilly woman.

Come on.  Cover painting by Andy Donato

 

43. Kill All the Judges by William Deverell

I first heard of William Deverell, I think from Andrew Nette who recommended his first book Needles.  I've been looking for it for a couple years now and was under the impression it was an obscure work from some small publisher. In Nanaimo, I asked the owner of Arbutus Used Books who knew him immediately and pointed to several books by him, recent and clearly best seller type paperbacks.  After reading Kill All the Judges, I was surprised to discover on his wikipedia page that he is "one of Canada's best known novelists".  I wonder how regional this stuff is?  This book is very British Columbia and maybe doesn't resonate as well from people who don't know the west coast.  For me, if this book is any indication of the quality of his other books, it is a nice discovery, because I really enjoyed it.

It started out a bit too meta for me, with Vancouver lawyer Brian Pomeroy losing it, descending into a drug-fuelled breakdown while writing a novel and taking on the case of a working class poet accused of throwing a judge off his own balcony during a literary party.  The drug use and the breakdown was darkly funny and very well-written, but also interspersed with the novel which mixed reality and fiction and I was worried I was going to be confused.  I started to get the jist, but then that storyline got abandoned as Pomeroy gets put in an institution and we switch the narrative of (whom I now know to be) Deverell's series character, retired lawyer Arthur Beauchamp.  This was immediately fun as he lives on a made-up Gulf Island (called Garibaldi, but could be Pender, Gabriola, etc.).  The cast of island characters, various fuck-ups and weirdos was spot on and quite funny.  There are a lot of plotlines on the island and Beauchamp's personal life: his wife is running for the Green party, his  brooding adolescent grandson has been dumped by his absentee son-in-law, a neighbour sculptor is busted for weed, his truck keeps not being returned by the flakey mechanic.  All this is going on while Beauchamp tries to avoid taking on the poet's case (who also lives on the island).

This is one of those very entertaining, page-turning modern detective novels with quite funny dialogue, lots of interesting characters and a nice, dark look at the scummy world of politics and law.  Deverell clearly knows his stuff, from the law to island life to excessive drug use.  I'll be picking his books up in the future for sure.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

42. Deathworld 2 by Harry Harrison

Deathworld 2 reminds me of why I enjoyed Harrison's work so much when I was a teenage nerd.  His books are somewhat simple and straightforward with a relentless narrative.  You get the smattering of theory and nerdy superiority but it is wrapped up in a story that has constant discovery around the corner.  You keep turning the pages because you want to discover the world Jason dinAlt is making his way through as well as to see what happens to him (or more accurately how he bests the situation with his superior rationality).

In the second book, he is immediately kidnapped from Pyrran by Mikah, a self-righteous activist from the planet where Jason won the money that started his trip to Deathworld.  Mikah is a caricature of the puritan.  He represents a minority group that wants to stop the gambling on his homeworld by putting Jason on trial and exposing the fraud of the gambling syndicates who are using him for advertising (because he won so much money).  Jason breaks free and sabotages the ship and they crash on a super-primitive slave world.  They get caught by a slaver whose sole existence is walking a group of slaves back and forth through the desert, digging up these roots for food.  The rest of the narrative is Jason making his way up the food chain, first by might and then later by his knowledge of technology.  He ends up as the main advisor to the tribe that controls a very primitive form of electricity.  His goal is to find a space port and failing that, signalling into space in the hopes of getting rescued.  There is a lot of fun as he impresses the tribes with his knowledge, fights a lot and keeps not killing Mikah who keeps self-righteously ratting him out.

Underneath the fun are themes of technology and transparency of ideas, puritanism vs. relativism and morality.  Sometimes it is a bit heavy handed, which was the norm for sci fi of these times.  The primitive society's biggest flaw is that they hide their technology from each other and the most annoying character is rigid Mikah.  It's all writ fairly obviously but its okay because there is so much fun along the way.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

41. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

I read this one over a few weeks to my daughter.  She seemed absorbed.  I know it's a classic and I enjoyed reading it, but I started to feel sadly that it might not have the same resonance as it did at the time it came out.  It may have just been me and my daughter, but I don't think we felt the excitement of the idea of running away and living in a museum that I felt when I read it as a kid.  I wonder if we have too much "adventure inflation" where normal kids taking a commuter train on their own is just not the same as being actual wizards who are sent to another world as every Netflix kids show seems to be about.  Those are more my feelings than my daughter's because all I got from her was "it was good", though she was certainly quiet and listening during most of the reading and always "aaaawww"ed when I stopped.

I also didn't quite understand the main theme of Claudia running away and not wanting to return until she had achieved something.  I mean I got the part that she ran away to be special, but the idea of her having a secret and that satisfying her was too subtle for my simple brain.  I will be taking my daughter to the Museum of Natural History at some point, so we'll see if she remembers anything from the book.

40. Theirs Was the Kingdom by R.F. Delderfield

I guess I've become an R.F. Delderfield fan.  I really enjoyed To Serve them all my Days but bought God is an Englishman almost purely because the title was just so pompous.  Now here I am having realized it was the first of a trilogy, plowing through the second (which I found at Black Cat Books in Lennoxville, QC in the Eastern Townships) and trying to not jump right into the third, of which I already have a copy on the on-deck shelf.  This is a great summer read. Though an imposing 800+ pages, it is broken up into many little vignettes that can be read in short bursts without losing the overall narrative of Adam Swann's business and family.

The family takes up the bulk of the book and to be accurate, because of that, the main character is really his wife, Henrietta Swann.  I think that Delderfield made an effort to amplify feminine narratives, even to the point at times of anachronism.  A big chunk of the first book, and of the theme of their marriage, is that Henrietta ran his business for a year when he was out after a bad train crash.  Here, she manages the family and the various conflicts and crises that arise, mainly around the children finding marriage partners.  The first and biggest one is the eldest daughter hastily marrying into class (though rich, because Adam is in "trade" he still is outside the society of the landed gentry).  This episode was almost funny and telling in Delderfield's clear disdain for the inbred and deteriorating aristocracy of 19th century England. Her weak-lipped bridegroom brings her to his dusty and ill-cared estate, where he focuses only on his games (billiards and horse-racing; the only source of active income the family has left), drinking and his super close buddy Ponsonby.  She soon discovers the reality that her husband will never consummate their marriage and worse that his creepy dad wants to do that in his place, to produce children and hush up any scandal. There was some homophobia in the portrayal of their gay relationship, that I think went beyond the mores of the time.  They are portrayed as quite nasty and prancy, though how much of that is Delderfield critiquing the British gentry isn't entirely clear.

We follow all the children in their various adventures and growth.  These are often interwoven with real historical events and trends, such as Victoria's jubilee, social reforms around prostitution, even bicycles.  I found this book very engaging and easy to read, but at times it was all a bit too easy for the children.  Other than Stella's adventure, which had the real risk of a ruined reputation and legal conflict with a neighbouring family, none of the stakes seeemed all that high, even when the stepdaughter Deborah goes deep into Belgium to expose sex trafficking.  Everything works out in the end for the Swann's.  Ultimately, I appreciate that and I think that's what readers of this kind of book look for.  Regular readers will know my own dislike of the dogma of necessity of conflict in fiction.  It was just at times it all felt so easy for the Swann's, especially when they have absolutely financial troubles while also getting to be just progressive enough to never be bothered by any social ills, it does all seem a bit fantastic.  There is a third book to come, so this direction could reverse significantly as the British empire heads into the Twentieth Century and the beginning of its end.

It really is an escapist fantasy.  By the end of the book, Adam Swann has retired from his business and let his son take over.  He then gets to spend the last few pages of the book completely re-landscaping his big property and decorating the interior with all the cool things he has accumulated after years of shipping goods all over Britain.  It did make me regret that I haven't spent my years amassing wealth and a huge estate so that I could spend my dotage planting cool gardens and building lakes surrounded by exotic trees to go and feel peaceful in.


 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

39. Deathworld by Harry Harrison

I was a big fan of Harry Harrison when I was a teenager.  I don't remember much about his books but that they were always kind of fun.  I hung out with my old friend from that time recently and we went through his excellent sci-fi collection, where we re-discovered this lovely hardback edition of all 3 Deathworld novels (with a cool Corben cover), which he lent me.  I tore through the first one, partly because it is such a quick and fun read and also partly because of some jetlag-induced insomnia.

I have to applaud again the now mostly outdated practice of the shorter fantasy or sci-fi book.  I do enjoy the depth of detail and absorption of a thousand-page per book trilogy but authors like Harry Harrison show that you can deliver epic scope and cool characters in 150 pages.  The hero is Jason dinAlt, an itinerant gambler/cheater whom we learn has a psionic ability to read and manipulate objects of chance.  Kerk, the ambassador from the planet Pyrrus hires him to turn a 17 million credit front into 3 billion dollars.  Jason succeeds and he and Kirk barely escape the casino security.  Jason learns that Kirk has a deal to use the money to buy a ton of armaments to take back to his planet, which is so deadly that the small group of colonists who live there spend all their lives just fighting it to survive.  Jason, intrigued, convinces Kerk to let him come and visit.  In order to survive, he is forced to join the training program with the six year-olds.  

At first, it seems like most of the book will just be about exploring this super deadly planet, but we quickly get into a greater plot, where Jason suspects there is more going on than just a hyper-dangerous environment.  His investigation leads to some pretty big ideas about man vs. the environment and conflicting types of society.  It goes quickly and therefore seems a bit too easy and simplistic, but we appreciate this is a function of the speed of the book.  It also ends nicely with an option for greater adventure (which I will explore in Deathworld 2).  Good stuff. I am glad to be rediscovering Harry Harrison.


Sunday, August 07, 2022

38. The Stone Sky (book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy) by N.K. Jemisin

Once again, I hamstrung myself somewhat by waiting too long to read the third book in a trilogy.  Jemisin is a skilled enough writer that most of the characters and plot lines came back to me by the time it mattered. Nevertheless, it diminishes the pleasure when you are trying to remember who is who and what happened before especially in the third book where all the shit is revealed.  Other than a few annoying (but thematically crucial) elements, this conclusion really did a tremendous job of delivering an epic science fiction tale.  It both wraps up the main narrative of the various heroes (the most important now being distilled into separated mother and daughter Orogenes) and entirely reveals the history that brought the world to its broken state.  Extremely interesting and satisfying.  I am not quite sure that the Broken Earth breaks radical new ground in sci-fi/fantasy (is that even possible?) but it deserves all the praises and awards it has received and I won't argue too hard with someone who considers it a masterpiece.  The depth of the world building and how that ties in with the contemporary themes of colonization and oppression are richly and beautifully constructed.  The third book delivers a climax that is deeply satisfying and reinforces all that came before in the first two books.  It's really fucking cool.

My complaint is that there is at times what feels to me like a forced conflict in Essun's (the mother) relationship/feelings about herself and her daughter.  I find at times in post-colonial sci-fi there tends to be a self-criticism that feels forced and rings false.  She blames herself for things she did or did not do that are completely outside of her power.  There is a lot of "I am a failed mother because I couldn't protect my daughter" when there was absolutely no way to protect her and the earth being ripped in half separated them.  It was lightly applied enough that it only got in the way of the story a few times.  However, at the end it really threw me off.  The mother and daughter finally meet and if they had just shared a few sentences with each other, a lot of fake conflict would have been avoided. Instead, the daughter goes storming off.  I'm sorry, no matter how tough the mom had been with her, after two years and all they had gone through, there would have been some greeting and interaction before they started blasting each other with their magic power.  It just felt forced.

Maybe I am too much of a male doofus to get the subtleties.  As I say, this was a minor flaw in what was otherwise a really cool epic journey that pretty much did everything you want an epic fantasy book to do.

Monday, August 01, 2022

37. Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

After figuring out the various grandes dames of British detective fiction, I realized that I had never read a Dorothy L. Sayers and so was happy to discover several in a free box in Vancouver, in particular this lovely 1974 reprint of this early 1926 Lord Peter Wimsey novel.  Also, a good choice for a vacation read.

A big part of the charm of these mysteries is reading the lifestyles and interaction of the aristocracy.  Clouds of Witness is rich with these elements as the murder takes place in (or rather just outside) a house the family is leasing for shooting and Wimsey's elder brother, the Duke of Denver, is the accused.  I don't know how much of his history and family play a role in the rest of the books.  Here, though it is his older brother, Wimsey displays British "business as usual" and adds no extra emotion to his detecting (we also learn that he doesn't really like his brother all that much, which is later affirmed in a biographical note added to the end written by their uncle).

The mystery here wasn't too tricky and I appreciated that it seemed more of a vehicle to get Wimsey, his man Bunter and his confederate in the police Parker to have adventures and interact.  Really, the crime is complicated by a series of coincidences.  Basically, his sister's fiance is found dead, shot in the heart.  The brother discovers the body and is bending over just as the sister comes downstairs and she thinks her brother shot him.  Both of them are also hiding something.  And it has come out that the fiance was a cheat at cards and the elder brother had found out.

It's sort of hard for me to distinguish between the styles of Ngaio Marsh and Sayers at this point, as both have aristocratic detectives with a backstory and I've only read one of  the latter.  Sayers has a slight lead for now in that the one book I did read was not so fiendishly complex and obsessed with the revelation of the crime.



Wednesday, July 27, 2022

36. Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

For some reason, this book blew up on my twitter feed a few years ago.  Maybe it was re-released?  I'm not a horror guy, but according to the generally pretty savvy book nerds I follow, Harvest  Home is a horror classic.  Not sure if they also added "unsung" which seems not totally accurate as it was a big bestseller at the time.  I was happy to stumble across it in paperback in a free library in Toronto.  [This is what I had written on a slip of paper I put in it when I came back from that trip last summer, but my memory says I actually found it at The Monkey's Paw (a great curated bookstore where I never find anything I actually want to read but love going into and talking to the owner).]

It is a great premise.  A young family leaves the rat race after stumbling upon an idyllic town that seems almost out of time in the New England countryside. Though very old-fashioned and while not unfriendly not necessarily welcoming either, the family eventually starts to make a home for themselves in the community.  The economy is based around corn and they are way into it, including having a big harvest festival and all kinds of other weird old traditions.  There are, of course, hints of darkness underneath the pastoral simplicity.

Now, having grown up in a small town, I do have a great fear of the countryside.  Not because of some weird, potentially murderous rituals, but rather because of the ignorant, angry redneck shitbirds that these places seem to grow.  This book comes from a more innocent time and perspective, where we don't have facebook-fuelled conspiracy tards in the countryside but just really old school, hard-working types who don't want to change their ways but really aren't hating unless you actually try to change their ways.  And all things considered, except for a few minor sacrifices, their ways aren't all that bad.

It's what makes this book interesting.  The protagonist is the husband, who starts to uncover what's actually going on.  The mystery is fun to follow, but he is also kind of a dunderhead and also kind of a dick.  Near the end, it's hard to sympathize with him.  He is way too righteous and thinks that his discovery of one crimes entitles him to completely fuck everything up.  

It's a well-written book, with a thoroughly thought out town and history that Tryon slowly unravels for you in a way that keeps the pages turning.  I didn't ever find it that scary, though there are a couple of pretty freaky scenes with Missy the girl with the vision.  The aesthetics of the magic and the ritual are really cool as well.


MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!




<spoiler select to see>What's hilarious about this book is that the final climactic horror in the end is basically a classic Penthouse fantasy:  the husband is forced to watch while his wife gets plowed (pun intended) by the super well-endowed Harvest Lord.</spoiler>

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

35. Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt

Finished this one on of the most beautiful spots in the world, leaning on some driftwood at Comber's Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  I can't remember where I got the recommendation, perhaps Ken Hite (again), but it was solid.  It takes a while to get moving but once the journey starts, this is a very good addition to the PA genre.  It stands out by being kind of chill and not filled with dread and fear.  One could almost call it a "cozy" PA book.

It takes place thousands of years after the collapse of our own civilization, seemingly from a sudden plague.  Society is very low-tech and achieving some level of political stability after a period of warring regions has led to an alliance.  With the constant reminder of the failed "Roadbuilders" most people are not really into  exploring the past and consider the ruins to be dangerous and even haunted.  There is enough wealth and stability now for there to be learning centers and Eternity Road begins with a scholar returning from a failed attempt to find "Haven", a rumoured place where the Roadbuilders have still survived and maintained their knowledge.  This is all really the prologue as when the scholar dies, he triggers a new gang to head out and trace his path by leaving a single copy of a Mark Twain book to the sister of one of the vicitms of the original party.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is that it takes its story and narrative drive from the quest and the interplay of characters.  There are so many possibilities where you could have a strong antagonist (small-minded locals trying to stop the journey; bad characters joining the party to undermine, etc.) and it just doesn't happen.  Everybody in the party is a real person, well-rounded and there for various reasons that don't always jibe but there is none of this unnecessary artificial conflict of one guy spazzing out or stupid power conflicts.  The journey is the pleasure for the reader.  There are real dangers and bad stuff happens, but it never made me feel anxious.  I just really enjoyed the depiction of the world, the clues about what happened to the past and some really cool interactions with ancient/modern tech (the bank robbery was a particularly neat  and clever scene).

I did have a couple of minor quibbles.  It felt like the language and shared awareness seemed to expand in the latter half of the book, where characters talked about things too easily that they didn't even understand before.  I also didn't quite get the behaviour of the survivor of the original journey to Haven.  I understand why he was bitter, but to deprive everybody else of so much knowledge because of his accident seemed a bit extreme.  But I guess without it we wouldn't have had this book, which was quite enjoyable and satisfying.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

34. Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

I've found somewhat of a pattern in my reading.  When feeling a bit lazy about it, I will go to a cozy mystery as an easy palette cleanser.  Being of a discerning and intelligent reader by nature, it has to be somewhat smart and well-written and fortunately for all of us, these grand dames of the mystery world have provided us with a lot of books that fall under that category.  Currently, Ngaio Marsh is deliving the goods for me but when I was reading Death at the Bar, I realized I was getting her confused with Dorothy L. Sayers and then realized I actually have only read a book of short stories by Sayers.  Furthermore, I've only read one P.D. James (liked it) never read any Ruth Rendell (is she as good?) or Margery Allingham (at least not in the life of this blog;I had read one by her in my college years and did not enjoy it).  I kind of "get" Ngaio Marsh now so I hope to add at least some James and Sayers to my on-deck shelf as future palette cleansers.

Death at the Bar takes place in a cool-sounding small town (accessible only through a precarious tunnel cut into the hillside) on the Devon coast of England where a trio of gentlemen have come to vacation.  One is a painter, one an actor and the third a prosecuting lawyer (barrister? K.P.? Who the fuck can figure out the weird British legal system).  The lawyer has a minor fender-bender on his way in and then encounters again the other driver at the bar.  This leads to a weird, subtle conflict which ends in a dart contest which ends in the lawyer getting pricked by a dart and then collapsing and dying from ostensibly cyanide poisoning.  A classic, complex whodunnit where everyone at the bar could have done and at least three ways the poison could have been applied (the dart, the brandy he was given afterwards and the iodine used to treat the dart wound).

I really enjoyed the setting, the characters and the interplay between Marsh's detective Alleyn, his sidekick Sergeant Fox and the suspects.  I actually ended up staying up way too late the night before an early flight because I wanted to find out who dunned it.  Unfortunately, I ended up not being super satisfied. The last section spends the entire time on going over in great detail all the possibilities and suspects and eliminating them until the mystery is finally revealed.  The solution is clever, but for me, I realize I actually do not have the patience and focus to care about these details.  It all feels too nerdy for me.  I think I may not be a true mystery lover at that level where you can actually think through the details of the crime and try and figure it out and I realize that is what Marsh excels at (similar level of detail in the other book of hers that I read).  I'm there more for the setting and interplay of characters.  I suspect that real mystery buffs may have been somewhat underwhelmed at the solution to this one as it turns out to be the most obvious suspect (after he had been sort of eliminated, so a clever twist by Marsh but still leaves you feeling like you didn't get the big reveal).


 

Thursday, July 07, 2022

33. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I finally jumped in to the third and final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy.  I was saving it because I enjoyed the first two so much, but that might have been a bit of a mistake.  Book three basically continues directly from the second book and there are quite a lot of plot threads that I had forgotten.  She does a good job of catching you up, but you need the meaning and emotions fresh in your head to make their conclusions resonate.  I felt a bit distant from this book because of the gap since I had finished the second. Maybe in the future I just need to plow through trilogies or series like this.

So while I quite enjoyed it, it was mainly because we were still in the really cool universe that Leckie has created and less then because the narrative satisfied me.  It felt like a bit more of a whimper than a Big Bang when Fleet Captain Breq and her team finally prevail against one of the clones of the Radch emperor Anaander that is fighting with itself and tearing apart the Radch empire.  It is cool to see how this vast colonizing space empire starts to break apart and how this will manifest itself.  The massive change that Breq initiates is giving self-determination to the AIs that allowed the Radch to so dominate.  We only get a  little taste of it (as it is granted to two ships and a space station) so it would be cool to see future book or series that deals with how this change will impact the universe.

Another really cool element, the alien Presger, are further expanded upon here and it is quite fun.  Well we don't actually get to meet the Presger themselves, just a somewhat human being that was created by them to act as "translator".  There is a running gag about fish sauce that was funny but also did give you a sense of something truly alien.

So I enjoyed reading it, but I wished that it had expanded outwards more.  There also is a lot of interpersonal conflict among various characters on the crew that felt somewhat trivial and overblown.  I think Leckie could be accused of a bit of moralizing driving the narrative. The big conflict involves a character from an upper class background doing micro aggressions and not apologizing when called upon it; feels very contemporary and a bit didactic but worse you just don't really care all that much.

Friday, July 01, 2022

32. The Fire Goddess by Sax Rohmer

I picked up this book in the great paperback haul of early summer 2022.  I've never read a Sax Rohmer and couldn't resist this cover.  I was prepared for a lot of colonialism and straight out racism but it actually wasn't as bad as I feared.  More the somewhat benevolent and patronizing British racism where the others are othered but aren't necessarily portrayed as inhuman or less than human.  That being said, the description of a beautiful mixed race character was often portrayed as being somehow animalistically sexual.

The story is revealed in layers, with quite a few characters and plot lines going on at first, so you don't get the main gist right away.  Basically, the eponymous Fire Goddess is an insanely beautiful exotic woman who is often taking baths or lounging around in silky transparent robes flanked by two black pumas.  She is returning to Jamaica, where she has one of her many luxurious and high-security homes, to prevent the exploration and exploitation (either for a dam project or a bauxite mining operation) of a valley where she does an important fire initiation ritual ceremony.  There is a detective who is sent from England to follow up on death threats to the minister who is pushing for the dam project.  There is also a handsome young man who works for the bauxite company whose old childhood crush is now the grown up and beautiful secretary to the threatened minister.  There is also a Dexter character, who is working for but also in thrall to the Fire Goddess and he gets his own storyline of trying to break free.

So there is a lot going on and it was actually kind of fun to read and figure out where it was all headed. There is some good adventuring and exploring and lots of cool locations and side characters.  I get why these books were so popular at the time.  Unfortunately, I read that this series was kind of a copy of the Fu Manchu where the Fire Goddess basically replaces the Fu Manchu character.  So maybe I should go back and find one of those to get a better idea.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

31. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I have for a long time had this vague memory about a book we read in late elementary school that involved a bunch of heirs coming to a mansion for a will reading and having it be a gigantic puzzle.  I stumbled upon The Westing Game at S.W. Welch and thought it might be it so I picked it up to read to my daughter.  It was an interesting book and an interesting read. She is 9 and I think that some of the book was a bit hard for her to get, more on the way that it was written than the content.  When it came to the actual puzzle, she was much more perceptive and retentive to the details then I was.  However, the narrative jumps from scene to scene without being explicit about it and there is a lot of narrative conveyed by things that are unsaid or in indirect ways, so she had some trouble figuring out what was going on.  I'm not sure if objectively that is bad or good but reading it aloud to a 9 year old made me aware of how indirect the language was and it was somewhat annoying.

The situation and the characters are all quite interesting and engaging.  It is a nice capture of a certain American progressive mentality that was in many ways more mainstream back in the 70s and 80s where labour was not demonized and there was a simplistic but positive acceptance of the concept of diversity.  It also has a nice confidence about the behaviour and thinking of the young characters.  The protagonist ultimately is the youngest, the financially savvy but socially neglected 12 year old girl.  My biggest issue was that the mystery didn't really resolve itself for me in a satisfying way.  It was all just so oblique and the clues so arbitrary that by the time it was revealed, I was kind of lost as to why any of it was being done.  The dead guy was supposedly getting revenge for the death of his daughter by suicide, but in the end there was no revenge and no real explanation of what the point of the complex puzzle will was.  Maybe I just missed it.

Still not sure if this was the book I was looking for.  It may be that I am conflating more than one book and this was part of it.  Let me know if any of you can remember a young adult book from the 70s and 80s about a group of people who come to a mansion for a will that is a puzzle.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

30. Partisans by Alistair Maclean

Don't judge a book by its cover
I really need to stop reading later Alistair Maclean's. Perhaps I should just stop reading him altogether, which was my previous policy for most of my reading life.  I got sucked into this one because of the awesome 80s Fontana wrap-around cover.  It was a tough read.

The main problem is that despite a great setting (Italy and Yugoslavia in the height of WWII), nothing really happens. Maclean puts a bunch of mainly uninteresting characters together and I guess thought that was enough to keep the reader interested.  Ostensibly, elite Yugoslavian soldier spy guy Peter Petersen gets the assignment to escort a spoiled and naive brother and sister radio operators and their equipment to some unkown place in the Yugoslav mountains.  It's not clear why and right from the beginning there is all this distrust and doubletalk which I think was supposed to be suspense and spycraft, but was just confusing and boring.  It's all made worse by having all the good guys act like British public school boys despite supposedly being Yugoslavian and the women all portrayed as righteous, erroneously moralistic spazzes.

The main character is particularly annoying as he seems to already know everything and we keep either getting him, the other characters or the author himself pointing out how smart and great he is (often to undercut the women's outrage that he has duped them once again).  I am fine with the elite male protagonist kicking ass, but in Partisans he doesn't actually do anything all that cool.  It's all tell and no show.  

In the end, there is some big reveal that we all saw coming a mile away (spoiler, the protagonists are not actually German-allied royalists but partisans!!!).  Just really not great. 



Wednesday, June 15, 2022

29. I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

This was part of the great June paperback book find here in Montreal.  I have read at least one Mike Hammer but it was long in the past and it was high time that I properly educated myself.  I started with the first one, though I am not sure it is the best.  I hope not, because it was not great.  

I am aware that there is already a lot of infighting about Spillane's work both from the literary and political perspective.  I would say it is fair to critique the Mike Hammer books as fascistic, but I can handle a little fascism in my manly adventure books.  Unfortunately, as a mystery and detective thriller, I, the Jury is just not great.  Again, I want to be respectful and also remain mindful of how new this book was at the time it came out (and how I have a legacy of hardboiled detective and crime fiction in my own brain that owes much to Spillane while also skewing my perspective).  It's just that there are so many flaws that I was kind of rolling my eyes throughout and somewhat distanced.  

First, the tone is very inconsistent.  It starts out with a super intense anger as Hammer stands over the gutshot body of his war buddy as he fantasizes about revenge.  I'm a big fan of righteous revenge. I suspected that the white-hot intensity of the opening could not be sustained and the book loses much of its driving energy as the investigation gets underway and maintains a more mechanical pace with no solution to the mystery, nothing to generate emotion in the reader.  We get further removed with a bizarre falling in love with the hot psychiatrist.  There are also several three stooges level goofy asides, where Hammer bonks two wiseguys heads together at a bar for saying "hey hey" to his girl and dumps a pitcher of water from his upper story bedroom window on a couple of hair pulling "faeries".  These moments are actually kind of funny and suggest that Spillane wasn't entirely taking himself too seriously.  He just doesn't manage to balance these tone shifts in a way that kept me engaged.

SPOILER ALERT

Finally, the biggest flaw is that the plot itself has no real mystery or suspense because it was immediately obvious who the killer would be about a third of the way through the book.  And not because of any easy clue since there is no actual way for the reader to put anything together.  It's just you can guess by the stupid, simplistic mores of the book and the bizarre way sex and love are handled that it just had to be the femme fatale.  I guess in 1947 it was the peak of this misogynist trope or maybe Spillane took it to the next level, I don't know but it reeks to me of laziness and pandering to the readers at the time.  The finale where he finally gets his revenge is so rich with sex and woman fear that it must have been analyzed thousands of times by literary types.

Despite my negativity, the book was not unenjoyable.  I like the locations, characters and some of the crime backgrounds, though fantastic were imaginative (the procurer for brothels who enrolled at a different university each semester to seduce, impregnate and then drive these sinning women to vice was kind of a wacky twist on the pimp).  It's pretty fast moving and has some fun writing.  I hope that Spillane honed his craft in later books and I will try to find out which is considered his best.

 



Sunday, June 12, 2022

28. Hammett: A Life on the Edge by William F. Nolan

Took this ex-library hardcover on a whim from the free shelf in the middle of Esplanade (it is a half-block after the big free closet shelf thing outside Latina so I make both stops on my way back from the Y).  I am not particularily interested in Hammett's life but this looked readable, I just made that big paperback haul and am listening to the old-time radio series Sam Spade right now, so it seemed thematically appropriate.

On the positive side, this was a well-researched and easily readable, thorough walkthrough of Hammett's life and work.  He had a really interesting life and it was enjoyable and sometimes moving to read about it.  I hadn't known that he was hounded by McCarthy and his fuckstick anti-communist dicks in the 50s nor how resistant he was to their bullshit. I also didn't realize the full extent of his fame while he was still alive.  I knew he partied pretty hard but didn't realize how much of it was as part of the Hollywood elite.  Damn, they drank!

Unfortunately, this biography is also once again a hagiography and it really harms the material.  Nolan is just too keen to reinforce and remind us how Hammett was both a superior writer and a superior person,  even though at times for the latter his actual behaviour actively contradicts such a characterization.  He did do a lot of good and did seem to have a very strong will and idealism that is impressive and respectable.  But he also was a terrible drunk who did a lot of damage to himself and at times to the people around him.

There is a nerdy trope in  the crime fiction world that bugged me the first time I encountered it and still bugs me today, though I sort of agree with it more than I did initially: the Hammett is a real hard-boiled writer while Chandler is a flowery romantic.  Nolan just has to throw that one in this book and it's just nerdy and lame.  He also does a drive-by against the guy who is considered the first hard-boiled detective writer (now totally forgotten), simply it seems to ensure that though this guy's stories were there first, Hammett's are the real ones.  It's annoying as hell.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

27. The Drowning Pool by John Ross MacDonald (and major paperback haul!)

Hoo boy the beginning of this novel is just scathing.  Archer gets hired by a woman to follow up on a blackmail letter.  She is hesitant and will tell him almost nothing and he sort of forces her to let him come to her small coastal town outside of LA.  There, he spies on her little scene of local bourgeois.  He first watches her husband rehearse his lead performance at the local theatre (and also witnesses a kerfluffle between his daughter and their chauffeur). Later, he goes to a small dinner party the husband hosts.  MacDonald is at is nastiest, best here with Archer barely able to contain his contempt for this lost, pretentious group.

The story gets complicated quickly, involving a controlling mother, the wayward daughter, potential oil wells and the neighbouring oil boom town (very nicely described).  There is some good tailing and detecting and quite a lot of action including a nasty hijacking.  I got a bit lost at one point where Archer seemed to teleport from the small town back to LA but maybe they weren't as far apart as I had thought.  The narrative got a bit crazy and somewhat lost me near the end, with a crazy yet very enjoyable scene in a water-based sanitorium run by the nasty "Doctor" Melliotes (hydrotherapy; where Archer floods the room in which he is imprisoned).  However, when the full backstory gets revealed, it is rich and interesting enough to redeem the rest of the narrative. Not my favourite Lew Archer, but solid.
 

 

I'm burying the lead, though!  This beat-up and beautiful paperback was one of an incredible find.  I was walking to the park with some friends of my daughter's and passed this record store that I have been meaning to check out as I had noticed a bookshelf previously. From the window, it looked to be mainly music-themed books and indeed it was, but on the ground there were three boxes.  I took the liberty of opening them up (could be a no-no in some stores).  The first box was typical liberal arts classics (though some nice editions) with that nice Bowie biography being a minor gem.  The next two boxes though were like opening up a treasure chest!  More good stuff just kept coming out.  I appreciated the theme of 50s youth anxiety.  A few real classics here, including this great copy of The Amboy Dukes (I wonder if it is edited at all?) and another edition to the Amboy Dukes universe that I am looking for.

There was some brief sweating when the books weren't priced and we had to wait for the owner to show up. He ended up giving me a decent deal (he divided them into 3 piles of $3, $4 and $5).  I am not a huge Mike Hammer fan so hope to be able to pass these on to somebody with more of an appreciation.  The rest are mostly keepers.  The owner also said that he had gotten these from an older fellow who had moved into a nursing home and that there were more boxes to come.  I hope the gentleman is in relatively good health and spirits.  I hope to find some more of his books to give a good home.




Monday, June 06, 2022

26. Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

Shall we read a Nero Wolfe, how about two?!  I was so into the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin world after The League of Frightened Men that I felt like going back and reading the first one in this same double volume (with the bonus of being able to get this thick book off my on-deck shelf, freeing up much needed space).

This is the first Nero Wolfe book, though you wouldn't know it without the helpful introduction.  It refers to past cases and mentions that Archie Goodwin has been living with Wolfe for the past 8 years.  The interplay between the two seems as rich and ripe as ever, which is kind of amazing.  Stout was a good writer.  I enjoyed the mystery in this one a lot more than in The League of Frightened Men.  We start out with a banal case, that Wolfe almost rejects.  A woman's brother has disappeared.  Then it gets connected to the heart attack death of a wealthy college president on a golf course and things get interesting.  Unfortunately for the mystery it gets solved almost halfway through the book and when it should have ended we get another brain-off between Wolfe and a superior criminal.  The ending wasn't super satisfying either, but quite dark (Wolfe has some questionable ethics which I enjoyed).  Still, the lead-up was good enough that I was happy to keep reading.  

My Rex Stout goal has been achieved.  I am now happy to have his other books ahead of me to grab when desperate.

Friday, June 03, 2022

25. The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

I've been on the hunt for an easy find of some classic Nero Wolfe and alighted upon this two-fer (which I later realized was in large print format) of the first two, with some nice introductions and afterwords (including a map of Wolfe and Goodwin's digs).  Because I am perverse, I went with the second one first (actually I just preferred the title and only realized afterwards that this was indeed the first two Nero Wolfe books chronologically).

It did not disappoint.  I get why this series is considered classic.  I have listened to many of the Old Time Radio plays of Nero Wolfe and enjoyed the banter, but the language and interplay between Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in the books is a richer and more pure delight.  There is something about two men of extremely different personalities, united and perhaps trapped by work, who can be wittily candid about each other's perceived failings that is enjoyable to read.  It helps that Stout really is great with character and language.  Furthermore, the dressing around their relationship (Fritz, the elite french chef; the various helper detectives that Goodwin bosses around, New York City and environs) contribute to make this book a true escapist fantasy for a certain kind of reader.

My interest in the mystery itself waxed and waned, though the conclusion was quite satisfying.  A group of Harvard graduates come to Wolfe because two of their number have been murdered and they are receiving threatening letters from the person they know did it.  In their college days, a hazing prank went wrong and they crippled a freshmen. They had tried their best to make it up to him, paying for his care, supporting him to the point that he became a successful writer and befriending him but they all suspected that he still secretly hates them and, without incriminating himself, he makes it clear that he does.  As a group of clients, they are challenging as some of them still feel guilt for what they did and don't want him punished.  He comes off as twisted psychologically (perhaps even before the accident), kind of a psychotic mastermind against which Wolfe must pit his own genius.

Lots of fun. I am looking forward to reading the first one.

Monday, May 30, 2022

24. The Feud by Thomas Berger

Kudos to a cover that shows
an actual scene from the book
I found this nice 1983 first edition hardback in the free shelf outside of Latina.  I knew nothing about it or the author and thought the premise seemed interesting enough that I should give it a try.  It was enjoyable but I am still left a bit puzzled about what the overall mission was for this book.

It takes place I guess in the 50s in two small contiguous towns somewhere in America.  In the opening scene, a father from one town is buying paint stripper in the hardware store of another town.  The son of the proprietor working the counter expresses some attitude and this turns into a full-on conflict (the hardware store burns down that night and the father gets blamed).  The story of the feud is really the vehicle to deliver a somewhat light comedy of manners about dumb hicks.  I couldn't figure out if the author was sympathetic to the characters or poking fun at them and that is what left me feeling puzzled and slightly unsure of my ground while reading it.

There are several sympathetic characters, especially the two sons of the father at the heart of the conflict.  At the same time, almost all the characters, especially the men, are deeply flawed.  Weak of will, emotionally immature, corrupt and dishonest almost all of them.  We get snippets of real affection among them that are somewhat moving and nothing is treated with real heaviness (for instance, one of the sons punches the police chief of one town, who deserved it and his real punishment is that he can't go back to that town).  At the same time, everyone seemed so ignorant and selfish that the portrayal feels a bit like a caricature.

It is well written and the story moved along nicely.  There are some funny bits and the interaction among the teens and their sexual fooling around was well portrayed.  I am still not sure what the point was though.  Here is a much better review that puts The Feud into some context (and summarizes it better), but still doesn't succeed in explaining why we would want to read it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

23. The Protector by David Morrell

Here in Montreal, we have two library systems, the local municipal libraries (of which Mordecai-Richler I frequent often) and the BANQ which is the provincial system (as well as being the official archive for the province).  The BANQ has a really beautiful building downtown which I used to go to a lot, especially when I was studying.  However, since the pandemic and the efficiency of the municipal inter-library loan system, I hadn't been in a few years.  I volunteered to go with my child's school trip, renewed my card and in the few minutes I had to spare between corralling and shushing rugrats, I snagged this David Morrell.  I am actively hunting for his medieval mysteries, but he is always competent and this looked like a fun, quick read.

Morrell seems to have made a niche for himself as extreme researcher of cool ass shit.  In this case, he goes deep on the elite protection industry.  Cavanaugh is an ex-Navy Seal who runs a small team that protects and hides people under extreme threat.  Here, he is hired to protect a scientist who is already holed up in a warehouse hideout.  When he goes there, the shit hits the fan and Cavanaugh learns that the guy discovered the ultimate drug (instantly addictive) and that the cartel is after him.  There are several twists that weren't too hard to predict (even too easy, at a couple of points I found Cavanaugh to be stupid to not cotton to what was going on), that of course lead to Cavanaugh on his own, on the run.

There was another early plot point error that surprised me, where they sent the client out to get his fake ID created before the plastic surgery they were planning and I was off on the wrong foot.  Once we get into the main plot, it's pretty cool.  Morrell's research comes into play and we get lots of cool techniques for going undercover on the lam, armouring vehicles (and how to knock other vehicles off the road), making fake wounds and all kinds of cool little details.  The bad guy is a real hateful prick too.  A bit shakey at the beginning but ended up being as I had expected a quick fun read.

Monday, May 23, 2022

22. Understanding Korean Politics: an Introduction edited by Soong Hoom Kil and Chung-in Moon

Shit is getting wild around here at Olman's Fifty!  Not only reading non-fiction but actual academic books.  Crazy.  I grabbed this one after several moments of hesitation from the free little library on Esplanade.  I have a decent understanding of Chinese history and an okay knowledge of most of the rest of Asia, but beyond that Japan was quite horrible to it, my knowledge of Korean history was almost zero.  Like so many others, I have been introduced to Korean culture through movies and food in the last 20 years and I've long felt I should have at least a broad grasp of its history.  This book is more based around political science, but you can't do a survey of the country from the end of WWII to 2000 (when this book was published) without some history and I got what I wanted from this book.

I think it is probably worth studying why Korea has remained so quiet in the west, considering that it's history is quite wild.  Not only did it have a miraculous economic growth, it did so through three dictatorships and some serious political craziness (including the president being assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA in 1987!).  Why does Korea get so little play in the west?  This book did not go into that, but it was a solid and sometimes interesting overview of Korea's political history, coming out of WWII being basically occupied by the US and USSR, getting split after the Korean War and then developing from a US-dependent military dictatorship to an independent, democratic economic powerhouse.

Though a bit dry and basically undergrad poli-sci with some of the nonsense that brings (academics still struggle with arguing over which theoretical lens is best and then concluding oh yeah we can use many), this book was divided into digestible chapters, all of which were really well-researched and directly presented.  What I found particularly interesting is how the dictatorships had such control until, in each case, they went too far and popular protest ended up bringing them down.  I'm over-simplifying but there seems to be something in 20th century Korean history where the people are unified enough (and having the threat of North Korea is a major factor here) that they can exist with a dictatorship and yet also bring it down.  It bums me out that in their last election, they chose a populist asshole (though barely, but isn't that how these fucks get in power everywhere?).  I hope Korean cultural and political unity can withstand the dividing power of today's internet.