Sunday, December 18, 2022

59. Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary

We got these Cleary books before our daughter was born and she never showed any interest in them.  She resisted having non-picture books read to her until she was 9 but I finally got us into a pattern of reading text-only books.  Since the last father daugher read, The Call of the Wild, was quite brutal (and also had a lot of difficult sentence structure and obscure vocabulary), we wanted something a little happier and lighter.  So she accepted going through her bookshelf and we ended up compromising on this one, that had been sitting there since she was born.  The lesson for us parents is patience.  

I think this may be the second Ralph book.  Here, Ralph is a young man mouse who yearns to ride his motorcycle freely but instead is forced to entertain his younger siblings.  When he gets a chance to run away, he takes it and ends up at a kids' summer camp and gets captured by one of the campers.  We follow two storylines, Ralph's attempts to escape and avoid the camp cat and indirectly the shy and estranged boy's integration into the camp.  It's tight and fun, though lacks some of the personality of the Ramona books.  We'll keep an eye out for the first book and I hope we can read it before my daughter ages out of interest in books about intelligent animals.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

58. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I chose this one to read with my daughter, as I loved it when I read it and thought she would enjoy the story and learn a bit of history from it as well.  I'm counting it as another book read, even though I already have it noted on the blog from 2014.  Mainly, though, I anticipated that she would like the transformation of the dog.  The thing was, I read it in my 40s when my friend Mike recommended it to me.  I was far from being a parent at that point and somehow completely eluded in my memory how brutal this book is.  It also has a theme of 19th century simplistic Darwinism, that I also appreciated less in my 50s than in my 30s.  The black dog who has a racist name also didn't help.  Nonetheless, it's still a gripping and rich book but I think better appreciated by adults or children who have already absorbed a bit more of the darkness of the world (12 years old might be the youngest) and can handle the rich vocabulary, idiom and complex sentences of the 19th century.  If you are an adult who likes adventure fiction and haven't yet read The Call of the Wild, it's a classic for a reason.  Read it.  It's short.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

57. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

I read this to my daughter who is now 10.  It's one of my wife's favourites and the nice Laurel-Leaf paperback was the one she read as a girl.  It is a great little book that lives up to its reputation. What works here is the Robinson Crusoe fantasy, but done with an adolescent girl. Also, it is sort of the opposite in that she is not shipwrecked on an island but accidentally abandoned as her community all flee after a fight with Otter hunting Aleuts leaves them vulnerable.  Because she is a girl, she doesn't have the hunting and building skills that the men had and has to figure them out on her own from what she saw growing up. This was one element that my daughter heavily criticized and also made me suspect may be historically inaccurate.  Or at least O'Dell never checked.  My understanding was that a lot of the west coast people were matrilineal, though I don't know how that would impact education and it may have varied a lot depending on the region.

Still, her teaching herself fishing and canoe repair is a cool part of the story.  Despite not having all the skills, she is tough and non-emotional when she has to be.  It makes for a good protagonist for girls and boys.  I don't have a whole lot to add, just to say if you are looking for a good read for your tweener and even teen child, I can recommend this one.  Sadly, the real story is quite dark.  All her people were taken to Santa Barbara and died there of disease.  When she did get found, she too was sailed to Santa Barbara, where she could speak to nobody but 3 of the remaining people.  She died 7 weeks later and was the last of her language group.  It sounded like her life wasn't too bad in those last 7 weeks, that she was excited to have different kinds of food and see the world.  The book hints at this at the end, making it ultimately quite sad.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

56. Dance of the Dwarves by Geoffrey Household

I took this mainly for the cover.  I like but don't love Household's work, though he is often quite interesting.  This one is quite odd.  I found the reading of it to be a bit slow and even trying at times.  This was partly because not much goes on and it is indeed slow, but also because I was never sure of the mission here.  This is not a "masterpiece of the macabre as the cover says.  It is neither a masterpiece (and I didn't expect it to be) nor macabre.  I did expect it to be macabre and it wasn't until the final third that I realized this is more of a semi-realistic speculative fiction for hunting nerds. It is basically about an amateur hunter discovering and researching a previously unknown predator species at the edge the South American jungle.  If you are really into hunting narratives, this might be your jam.  There is a weird and questionable romantic storyline as well that sort of brings everything together.  Ultimately, though, this feels like it had enough content maybe for a short story.

The story takes place in a remote area between plains and jungle in Colombia, where an Argentine born and raised Brit, Owen Dawnay, is researching soils and planting techniques.  It is truly desolate.  He lives in an abandoned estancia a few hours walk from a tiny "town".  The book is framed with a preface explaining how Dawnay's body was found in the estancia, presumably murdered by some leftist revolutionaries.  Then later a diary is discovered, which makes up the rest of the book.  It is all very well-written and the description and portrayal of the region, both the physical environment and the small world of the locals (mainly natives, itinerant cattlemen, the Spanish guy who runs the store and the aforementioned revolutionaries who show up from time to time to be intrusive and self-righteous and implicitly criticized by locals and Dawnway) are thorough and realistic.  The problem is that really not much happens.  There are visits and eventually he is gifted a young native girl from Bogota.  This whole storyline is incredibly problematic to say the least, though also probably realistic for the time.  She becomes his love and sort of daughter (she may not yet be even 15) and as the book moves on, he does fall in love with her.  He treats her quite well but the whole thing is quite tough to read and exposes Household's colonial perspective in about a dark a way as possible.  She is often referred to as an object and he is pleasantly and wondrously surprised when she demonstrates the smallest hint of an actual personhood.  Yikes!

The other storyline is that of the "duende", supposed magical and evil dwarves that come out for humans at night.  Other than Joaquin, the local shaman, nobody else will explicitly mention them.  They do however refuse to travel in certain areas at night, get scared when Own tries to play the guitar and they shut all the doors and gates the estancia each night.  Own gets interested and much of the second half of the book is him tracking these duende, which he discovers may be some kind of relative of the stoat, based on their hunting technique, but much larger and with a weird bouncing gate that makes them look like little dwarves.  They are actually quite dangerous and stalking and hunting them puts Owen's own life at risk.

So yeah, it's a kind of cool idea and I was absorbed with the setting, but I'm still not sure what the point of it all was and I found myself having to push to get through to the end.  And since I knew what was going to happen, though not precisely how, I wasn't all that interested to get there.  It was sort of satisfying how it all wrapped up.


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

55. Murder in the Madhouse by Jonathan Latimer

This is the second book by Jonathan Latimer that I have picked up in search of the coveted Solomon's Vineyard, which ranked high in Paperback Warrior's top ten one year, I think even number 1.  The opening is fantastic, with detective (though you don't know it at the time) William Crane, handcuffed in the back of an ambulance being driven to a fancy asylum for the wealthy.  The driver and the orderly are passing a bottle of homemade applejack (I really want to try this one day) back and forth and getting drunker and drunker.  It gets even more fun, as Crane almost immediately starts causing trouble when he does get checked in, busting the stuffy (and clearly suspect) head doctor of messing around with the nurse and then kicking another doctor in the head before the orderlies can get him into the detention room.  It's quite satisfying and fun right away.

He has been sent to investigate the theft of Mrs. Van Sant's metal box with $400,000 of bonds and a key to a safety deposit box with even more money.  Quite soon after Crane's arrival, the murders happen.  Latimer has a sparse writing style which is constantly moving forward, sometimes even skipping over details that you have to pick up on your own.  It's quite enjoyable to read.  Furthermore, there is no false modesty or bourgeois sensibilities covering up the behaviour of the characters.  They are direct and like to party.  Crane seems to drink as often as possible, often passing out in the middle of the day.  The men are hitting on the women and the women are no saying no.  I think this must be that depression-era prohibition culture and that Latimer hits the notes often because that's what people wanted to read.  Unfortunately, he also hits the murder and sleuthing notes often, to the point where it gets kind of absurd.  After the first body, two more are killed in fairly quick succession.  An idiotic sheriff comes with his deputies (one of whom is his son) and is absolutely clueless and arbitrary.  As it says on the back cover, it gets "daffy".  I still had a lot of fun reading this and will definitely pick up more of his books.  I just need to go in not expecting a whole lot in the execution of the plot and to remember that the tone is both hard-boiled and comic.

Note: the image above is not mine but it is the edition I found.  It's from Library of Crime Classics line by International Polygonics ltd. New York City.  Quite the amateur layout, but it captures all the key elements: a madhouse, a fountain (crucial to the plot in a not clever way) and boobs!

Monday, October 24, 2022

54. Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

Beware the trade paperback hyped by mainstream newspapers!  I exaggerate for effect.  I have been keeping an eye out for the Jean-Claude Izzo Marseilles trilogy for a while. I can't remember where I first heard it recommended but judging by the pull quotes on the copy I did find at Pegaus books, the hype reached a fever pitch amongst the literati.  Everybody was saying how hard-boiled his work was.  It's tough and there is some pretty harsh stuff here (unfortunately some of it the tired victimized women to motivate lone wolf male hero who can't make love work troope), but this is not what I call hard-boiled.  From the intro, I guess it is an evolution of the french neo-polar such as Manchette, where the world of crime is also intensely political.  There is a lot of poetic prose, which works okay in english and probably quite better in french as well as many very specific food and wine references.  It's all too flowery to make this book be hard-boiled, no matter the bleakness of the content.

Stripping away the hype and the mislabelling, this was a decent modern crime/mystery novel.  It begins with a man Ugo, returning from 20 years (in jail we presume though it is never explicitly mentioned) to avenge the murder of his criminal buddy, Manu.  An older criminal figure who is well connected points him to a high-ranking crime lawyer, whom Ugo shoots down. He is then gunned down by the police.  This is really just the inroduction to the main story and protagonist, sidelined cop Fabio who was the third friend.  His unofficial investigation into his friend's murder quickly dovetails into several other investigations (including the rape and murder of Leila an Algerian immigrant's daughter with whom he almost had a relationship) which then lead into the complex politics of the Marseilles underworld.

The descriptions of day-to-day life in Marseilles are juxtaposed with more expository (but brief) explanations of the tangled criminal networks in this central port city.  The latter is quite cool, but also often told rather than shown and at such a high scale that I sort of got lost and a bit disconnected.  It all does come together a bit quickly at the end and a bit too satisfyingly.  I accept that I am contradicting myself here, generally wanting a satisfying ending but not too satisfying.  This almost felt pat and a bit too easy after the convincing portrayal of the flexible power of the corruption between organized crime, business and politics in Marseille.

So I am glad that I have read the first book, but I do not feel a strong urge to continue with the trilogy.  I also am happy that Mediterranean Noir is supposedly a thing now and would be interested in other examples.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

53. Ora:Cle by Kevin O'Donnell, Jr.

Ora:Cle was recommended by a colleague who is an old school nerd with some interesting and intelligent perspectives, so I thought I would take him up on it.  It was an interesting read, hampered for me somewhat for being the kind of theoretical sci-fi that prefers ideas over narrative, but ultimately sticking the landing.  It takes place roughly 200 years in the future when everybody is forced to stay inside in order to protect what little organic life remains in order to maintain the C02 levels.  Further keeping people inside, a fleet of pteradactyl like aliens, the Dac, hover near the moon, sending down ships of who appear to simply be trophy-hunting humans.  Any attempt at fighting back has led in the past to massive retaliation by the Dac such as destroying an entire city.

Our hero Ale Elatey makes his money as a Seeley, basically part of an online group of researchers who will answer any question in their field of knowledge.  Their "internet" is Ora:Cle.  There is lots of fun tech in this future world, remotely-controlled repair bots, medics and police.  Everything is brought in to the homes via matter transmitter.  It's funny to have such advanced technology next to artifacts from the period it was written (1984) such as a box of floppy disks.  Also, the general size of the data is still so small (measured in megabytes) compared to the scale of digital junk we are hoarding in the cloud today.  Sadly, the gender politics are also as archaic.  Ale's wife is smart and tough and hard-working but also represents the shrill, overly-emotional foil who wants Ale to not take any risks that would upset their domestic peace.

The big idea or ideas here are who controls the information and whether it should be controlled or not.  Because all the action takes place in Ale's apartment, we have a lot of world-wide power struggles going on  via a telescreen, which felt unrealistic and took me out of the narrative.  There is a global security group called the Coalition that first came in place in response to the environmental crisis but now stays in place to deal with the Dacs.  The main conflict in the book is about them trying to kill Ale and gain control over Ora:Cle to control the dissemination of news to the world.  There are some prescient and interesting ideas that are relevant to today's challenges but it's only at the very end when a big secret is revealed that they coalesce into something interesting.  Is it acceptable to censor information from the public if that information would put the world at risk if it were available to the public?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

52. The Furies by Niven Busch

My friend who was clearing out some of his old DVDs gave me this Criterion DVD and book set because he thought I might be interested in the book.  I was expecting a western noir.  From the beginning, the richness of the prose and the slowness of the pacing made me realize I was in for something more baroque.  I guess you could call it a western melodrama maybe?  The story centers around the Jessup family and particularly the relation between uber-patriarch and cattle baron T.C. and his daughter Vance.  She is a great character, right from the beginning.  You have this feeling that she is going to get screwed, as she is already sleeping with a Mexican cowboy (with a good but unrecognized lineage).  Instead, she is pretty kickass right from the beginning.  Her flaw is not one of weakness but rather she is too like her hardass father.  A lot goes on in the book with her character, ultimately revolving around her relationship with her father.  It's extremely Freudian and epic.  I appreciated that while she suffers a lot, none of it is in the cliched vein of the victimized woman.  Rather, it is the result of her power struggles with her father.  Everyone in this book turns out to be the person others are warned about.  The warning for T.C. is that he will use anybody to his own ends and this is indeed the case.  Despite that and the terrible things he does, in his limited way he loves and respects his daughter.  He is just a driven, self-centered son of a bitch.

It's an enjoyable, rich read.  The prose style is too baroque for my tastes, but you get a great sense of the plains and mountains, of the people and the cattle on these western lands.  It doesn't feel entirely authentic and I was not too surprised to learn that Busch was a wealthy new englander, well-connected to get a starting job at Time magazine and then plumb screenwriting connections with Walter O. Seznick's son.  He even married Teresa Wright!  Nevertheless, he is a good writer and this is a sprawling page turner.  I am looking forward to watching the movie.

Monday, October 17, 2022

51. Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh

Okay, it took this book to finally nail home my lesson about Ngaio Marsh.  Her books are not relaxing, escapist fare!  I brought this with me on a work trip, thinking I could use it in my free moments and on the plane to kill time.  Instead I struggled with the opening, barely able to get through a page, sometimes even a paragraph before I got distracted or nodded off.  This shit requires serious focus.  You spend the whole opening on trying to understand the layout of a New Zealand sheep farm and manor (impossible for me to visualize and no map provided) and once you have given up on that, it's page after page of who went where among 6 different characters (at least there was a cast of characters, though only with their formal names and not all the different nicknames and titles that are used in the book and no relationship map which was also needed; which nephew!?) while they were looking for a lost brooch.  What really made all this sleuthing nerdery even more difficult to follow is that none of the relationships or the setting and situation are established, so you have no context for any of it.  For front-loading the mystery minutiae at the beginning I am going to have to blame the author.  In general, though I just have to remember that Ngaoi Marsh's books though also including fun characters studies and interesting situations are still ultimately whodunnits of the highest order and require a level of concentration that I cannot bring to a book.

So basically, this set me back almost two weeks of reading.  I finally got hooked in once I got back from my trip and actually finished it on another plane flight.  There was some good here, the portrayal of the New Zealand mountains and the sheep farm (and the process and locations for the shearing) were really interesting and kept the pages turning.  The slow revelation of the victim, the farm matriarch and local MP, who goes from strong, inspiring woman to quite nasty, even abusive manipulator is well done.  It gets particularly dark with the story of the local lad with musical talent that she took under her wing.  The murder is gruesome, or rather the disposal of the body, which is stuffed into a bale of wool and then compressed.  In the end, the revelation, though, left me a bit cold.  I think I am done with Ngaoi Marsh for a while.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

50. The White South by Hammond Innes

Look at this beauty!
For some reason, I had never read anything by Hammond Innes before this.  Somewhere online (Paperback Warrior?), somebody recommended him and gave a list of his best works.  I also can not remember where I found this copy, which is right in my perfect nostalgia period of Fontana paperbacks.  I grew up on the Desmond Bagley's with the white background and great realistic illustrations.  This one was in great condition, possibly never even read.  I felt bad opening it up.  I spoke with my dad who was the one who turned me on to this genre and he too had never read any Hammond Innes.  Odd, feels like an error on our part now that I have finished The White South.

It's not a mastperiece, so I'll get some of the minor flaws out of the way first.  The antagonist is great in concept, the sociopathic failson who wants to take full control of his father's whaling business.  In execution, however, he is just so extreme and his threat so obvious and the protagonist so dumb and stubborn to not deal with him earlier, that reader frustration deflates a lot of the potential conflict and excitement.  Fortunately, the situation itself, being trapped on an ice floe in Antarctica, is the real conflict.  The descriptions of the ice and the environment are incredibly well-written. I've read the Shackleton book which is bonkers.  Innes really amps it up here.  As a reader, you get these incredible combinations of human  stamina and will confronting the craziest ice and winter phenomena.  I will resist sharing any specifics because that really is the fun of the read.  Suffice it to say that it goes far beyond just having to survive in the cold.   There is some great action against the elements here.  I don't know how much research Innes did, because some of it is so wild it almost seems fantastic, but never unbelievable.

Another great element, which keeps the beginning moving forward, is the detailed description of the horrible enterprise of industrial whaling.  I somehow had it in my naive head that whaling was still just one ship with a harpoon.  Of course, humans with technology will always invent the most extreme and efficient way to destroy the planet and here we have a fleet with explosive-headed harpoons that then drag the whales to what is basically a floating processing factory.  It is fascinatingly horrific to read about, both for the individual horror of murdering a fellow (and basically superior) species on this planet and the collective horror of seeing how efficiently we killed them in entire pods.  Innes describes it all clearly and almost matter-of-factly (he doesn't impose the moral outrage I do here).  Likewise, he does a good job of portraying the labour relations, though in the best colonial practice, the bosses here also do get their hands dirty.

Definitely going to keep an eye out for more of these early Hammond Innes.

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 (#3 in the Vorkosigan saga)

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.


<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.