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.