Monday, February 28, 2022

10. Sea Jade by Phyllis A. Whitney

This is the gothic romance/thriller that made me have doubts about the genre.  I am hoping that this was a badly formed example rather than just me not liking the tropes.  It was quite maddening.  Miranda Heath, young woman recently orphaned returns to her father's business partner's mansion in New England against his wishes because she is economically desperate.  Though old Captain Obadiah Bascombe welcomed her, when she arrives, everybody else, including the huge dog and the ragamuffin girl all seem to hate her.  She has to unravel the mystery of her own past, defeat her numerous enemies with demure yet firm niceness and discover which brooding, inscrutable male she actually loves.

I guess the appeal of these books to readers is the weakenss of the protagonist.  I don't know, I really struggled with it.  I get it at first that she is at a total disadvantage and is forced to marry Brock MacLean, the bitter, stormy yet of course oddly attractive heir apparent (and son of the murdered third business partner) as well as put up with his complete bitch of a mother and the totally rude and inappropriate housekeeper (who is bitter at Miranda because her mother was working class and married into her "betters").  But when in the big early twist, she is awarded complete control of the shipbuilding business and thus has power over all of them, instead of whooping ass on them all, she is super apologetic and cedes everything to Brock and tries to make diplomatic overtures to the two uptight women.  I want a book where she slaps the shit out of her mother-in-law and stabs the housekeeper in a hand with a fork until she apologizes and gets dinner on the table fucking pronto.

Worst of all, though, is the romance.  Brock is just an asshole.  He's not straight up cruel, but treats her like a nuisance and patronizes her about almost everything even though she is usually the one on the right track.  There is nothing inherently appealing about him yet somehow she falls in love.  And all the mysteries, once resolved, are just not that satisfying.  Finally, these books always have unreliable narration so you are never sure until the very end who is bad and who is good.  I guess they are written that way deliberately so you can't guess by clues in the text, but it means that when you do find out the truth, it's not convincing because you don't feel confident about any of the heroine's interpretations that led up to it.

Friday, February 25, 2022

9. To Die in California by Newton Thornburg

I actually saw this book in a free shelf in Berkeley but decided against it as my on-deck shelf is so full.  A few days later, my sister brought it home as a joke for me.  I'm glad she did because it ended up being quite a good read.  I wonder if this falls under the category of forgotten book?  It appears to have been quite a big success but I had never heard of it nor of the author.

Normally, a book like this would annoy me, as it is basically a genre revenge thriller gussied up with literary pretentions.  It's written well enough that I got quite into it.  Its literariness was not too pushy and its flaws were those found in thrillers of the period, mainly around the sexual politics.  The book starts out with David Hook, a successful midwestern farmer at the funeral of his eldest son.  Though we get the premise right away, it takes a long time to get to the details.  This is where the literariness gets in the way of the efficiency one appreciates in a good action book from this time.  It's not too annoying because the writing is so good and it does help establish Hook's character.  His son was a great kid, who was going off to college before the draft and then coming home to take over his father's farm.  However, he wanted to travel for a few months and met his end in California, supposedly killing himself by jumping off the cliff of a wealthy young woman's house in Santa Barbara.

The plot and premise reminded me a lot of The Limey, where the protagonist comes out to California to trace his child's death and learns more than he bargained for.  It's pretty clear here, though, that the son truly was a good kid and really did love his father (and Hook is a tough guy but not a criminal himself).  We meet a great cast of early 70s decadent Californians: the upcoming political star, his ugly mannish PR exec, his slutty aristocrat girlfriend, the ex-jock bodyguard and lots of extreme hippies.  Though ostensibly liberal and meant for a liberal audience, this book has the ongoing self-loathing of the coastal elite that we see so prevalent in American culture today.  The progressive politician is a sociopath hypocrite.  All the hippies and gays are hopelessly doped up and lost.  It's the good old salt of the earth family man who is the only real one (and maybe the vet cop).

I was actually quite into this book in the first half.  It has a very satisfying slow burn where you are psyched for him to head out to California and avenge his son.  When you get into the actual plot of figuring out the situation the son got into and trying to reveal the truth, that is also intriguing.  The middle bogs down a bit when the principle characters are established and the reader has a pretty good sense of who the bad guys are.  Here we also fall into the classic establishment fantasy trap of the older man having great sex with a super hot younger woman.  I get the fantasy, but at this point it is just so cliched and sad that it really does undermine anything "literary" in this book.  It's particularly egregious here when he picks up a prostitute and suddenly is able to last super long and surprises her by making her have an orgasm and then she wants to spend the night with him and give him a freebie in the morning.  Insert rolleyes emoji here.

I quite enjoyed it and it was a real page-turner up until the end when it really does get quite depressing.  Though flawed, it will stay with me.  And I'd like to visit Santa Barbara one day.

Did a bit of research and Thornburg was quite successful in his day and ended up dying not very well remembered.  Man, writing is brutal.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

8. A Battle is Fought to be Won by Francis Clifford

Oof, this is a real war novel.  It felt quite realistic and was stressful and tense to read.  It takes place in Burma during the Second World War and follows a platoon of Karen soldiers led by a British ex-civilian, Captain Tony Gilling.  They are tasked with holding off the Japanese for a day along a strategic road.  It's a short read, basically taking place across two days. Aside from the main conflict with the Japanese, who are ferocious and scary, the big theme in the book is Gilling's weird insecurity around his second-in-command, Nay Dun, a super efficient, inexpressive Karen career soldier.  Under the stress of war, Gilling is convinced that Nay Dun is mocking, contemptuous of him and wants to take over. Gilling is scared and inexperienced and he makes a few blunders, but as you read on his actions belie his self-doubts.  Though he is freaking out the entire time, he does a lot of brave things, prioritizes his soldiers and the wounded and makes the right tactical decisions to delay the Japanese.  

I sympathized with Gillings to a degree.  The fear and panic seemed completely reasonable, especially after the super nasty shit the Japanese do to prisoners (to break the morale of the enemy).  However, his anxiety around his relationship with Nay Dun made him very unsympathetic.  It did seem realistic and perhaps was the subtle real sub-text of the book: the alienation of colonialism.  But if homeboy just chilled out a bit and tried to relate instead of being obsessed with his authority and being a leader, he would have seen the ironic twist that we all saw coming, that Nay Dun actually respected him.  So a frustrating read, at times harrowing, overall really well-written.  Not sure if the style is something that will motivate me to seek Clifford out, but I won't say no if another of his books falls into my lap.


Sunday, February 20, 2022

7. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colgate

I can't even remember where I found this or why I picked it up.  It's about a shooting party at a British country estate in 1913 just before the beginning of the First World War and the beginning of the end of the landed aristocracy.  This is clearly part of a literary sub-genre and one that was once quite popular.  I remember my parents talking with their friends about Upstairs, Downstairs.  What I appreciated about this book, that it really mostly was about a shooting party and went into enjoyable detail about both the characters and the actual work behind the setting up of the shooting (not as much as the masterful The Gamekeeper).  It has a minor and sad climax that moves the book towards its denouements, but otherwise doesn't really beat you over the head with end of the era doom and gloom.  It's just all very well-written and engaging.  I particularly enjoyed the character of Sir Randolph, the Baronet who is organizing the hunt.  He is a classic mixture of powerful aristocratic propriety mixed with privileged eccentricity.  The scene where the radical vegetarian socialist tries to interrupt the shooting and Sir Randolph engages with him to get a deal on having a pamphlet published motivated a re-read from me.

Friday, February 18, 2022

6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

One of the perks of having a child is to read books to them.  Unfortunately, my daughter has refused until the age of 9 to allow me to read anything but picture books (before she could read) or comic books (once she could read).  I finally somehow miraculously got us on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Well you can imagine how my heart soared with joy when she begged to read one more chapter after a couple of nights to get into the narrative.

Almost everybody knows this book of course, but I would recommend you read it again if you haven't since childhood.  It's so well-written, so impactful in its own little world and just so much crazy fun. The whole first section with starving, freezing Charlie and the starving, freezing Bucket family is so painful that it is almost unbearable and it makes the joy of the turn (when Charlie discovers the ticket), so great.  My daughter was guessing what was going to happen (she is really not into intrigue and mystery; just wants to know what is going to happen) and mostly accurately.  It's not that hard the way the book is structured, but I also feel it is such an ur-narrative of privation and humility followed by reward that it is almost natural to know and feel what is going to happen next.  I'm no expert on the trends of children's lit but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory must be massively influential in the (excessive in my opinion) abundance of narrative that is drowning children in our post-Harry Potter world.  

Wonka's refreshing lack of caring about the well-being of the bad children was written, I suspect, as a tonic against over-protective parents of the early 60s when it was written.  Man, if Roald Dahl could see the parents of today with their leashes and anti-bacterials sprays and arranged playdates.  We are living close to disaster in Wonka's world and it's fun!  Smarter people have written smarter stuff about this book.  I am grateful that I got to re-read it as an adult.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

5. Strip by Thomas Perry

I found this hardback Bibliotheque Mile-End (now Bibliotheque Mordecai-Richler) discard on the ever-fertile free shelf on St-Viateur and grabbed it because I liked the premise and it looked easy to read.  I guess Thomas Perry is a very successful thriller writer, including having an entire series.  I had never heard of him before.

It starts out great.  A guy who seems to be the protagonist is hiding out in the high cabin on a crane on a major high-rise construction site.  We don't know much about him except that he is on the run and hiding and is capable of breaking into constructions sites to sleep in crane cabins while learning how to operate them solely by reading the manual.  Though the action here was way over the top (he defends himself against 4 thugs and two SUVS with the crane), the writing had a nice stripped-down style with evocative suggestions of skill that I enjoy.  I got a little ahead of myself thinking I had discovered a new Richard Stark, but the beginning had that hardness.

The premise is that this guy, Joe Carver, is new in town and was spending a lot of cash in strip clubs and was thus fingered as the stick-up man who robbed the owner of those clubs.  Quite quickly, the narrative threads spin off in several directions and we follow the quite a few storylines, so many that it is not really clear until the end who is the actual protagonist.  As well as Joe, we follow the story of the savvy and hard but older strip club owner, his driver, the detective investigating and the real guy who did the stick-up.  So what starts out as a focused idea of the innocent badass trying to get the badguys off of his trail and then having to turn to ass-kicking morphs into more of a broad crime mosaic, focused ultimately on the club owner.  It was all fairly enjoyable, though at times quite implausible, especially the recurring ease with which guys got laid by hot and interesting but complicated (putting it mildly) women.

I found the ending somewhat dissatisfying.  It felt mean-spirited from what came before and also had a specifically nasty touch that I also felt didn't quite belong.  So I would have to say from a critical pespective that the book doesn't succeed in landing all the planes it launched and it may have been better to have started out with fewer take-offs.  The Joe Carver character, though he has a partial backstory is almost a maguffin, which is confusing as he starts out the book.  Despite that, it was quite fun to read and a real page-turner.   I also appreciated the detailed view on the backroom workings of strip clubs, felt very realistic.  I will definitely pick up his other books, when I run across them.

Monday, February 14, 2022

4. The Bitter Tea by Gavin Black

There is a great institution in Berkeley called Urban Ore.  It's a giant warehouse that accepts almost anything used and then sells it.  Basically a recycling store, but they do a really good job of curating.  This is where you go if you are looking to renovate a house and do it with nicely built used things.  They also have a pretty large and good book section.  I didn't find any major prizes, but did come up with several semi-obscure mid-20th century British thriller and crime books, including this cool Fontana.  Turns out it is part of a 13-book series starring mildly adventurous Singapore businessman David Harris.

This book starts out with him at a fancy party high in the hills above Singapore when a visiting Chinese dignitary pays a surprise visit via helicopter.  When this guy attracts the woman Harris was talking to, he goes for a little walk in the jungle on the edge of the property.  He happens to be there when shots ring out and then notices a rifle-carrying figure, a figure that he recognizes, fleeing down the hillside.  Stuck in the wrong place and not wanting to get shot by trigger-happy soldiers nor to get interrogated, he effects a sloppy escape, wrecking a car but managing to make his way back to his hotel room without being spotted.  Once at least physically out of this mess, we learn more about Harris's business ventures including the shipping company of which he may lose control when one of the board members dies.

It's a nice mix of traditional espionage in the Asian theatre with some business intrigue.  The emphasis ends up being on the former and it was made interesting by the milieu (it motivated me to read up on Singapore) and the novel situation they generate.  There is some action, but Harris does his work by being shrewd and avoiding trouble. So we get a neat escape from a hospital, a slippery stair trap and a nice fight in the dark that ends with a heavy table being flipped on the adversary. 


Wednesday, February 02, 2022

3. Reed all about me by Oliver Reed

I'm not normally a big fan of celebrity autobiographies but this is a coronet and come on, it's Oliver Reed.  I am not a huge fan, but have seen him in several of his earlier Hammers and The Devils.  I started out this book with low expectations and they fell even lower in the first chapter.  Like the bad title, it is full of bad puns and a particularly British male upper-class humour that is just annoying. Fortunately, it settles down into the actual narrative in the second chapter and his backgrounds is actually quite interesting.  He comes from an upper-class ancestry (his grandfather started the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and his uncle was the director Carol Reed).  However, by the time he was born, his parents had been disconnected from any wealth so he was raised with a peculiar mix of upper class culture and working class means.  He also was dyslexic which didn't exist as a concept in British education at the time, so he failed out of school after school.

His narrative is of the self-made actor, who rejected formal training and the theatre for the school of life, learning, he claims, his skill in the army and at pubs, just watching people.  There is no doubt if you see him in anything that he is intensely charming and charismatic as well as quite a skilled actor (could do accents, all kinds of stunts and fights).  Hard to know how much of that was innate and how much from the aforesaid school of life.  He has the reputation of a wild man and heavy drinker, but it does seem that on set he was disciplined and hard-working and the length and output of his career seems to attest to that.

After we get through his background, he shares a lot of stories about other directors and stars, life on the set and his various hijinks.  One gets the sense that though a wild man, he genuinely seemed like a decent person.  He loved animals and ended up despite all kinds of mistresses being in 2 steady long-term relationships (including his second wife who was 26 years his junior).  The one area where he really is not good is his misogyny.  He doubled down constantly on the gross anti-feminism of this period. It sucks in the book and it sucks when he talked about it live.  He actually was generally decent to the women in his life, so it sucks that he was so ignorant and nasty when it came to women actually trying to fight for equality.  A gross stain on his otherwise well-earned reputation for being a great actor and character.