Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 Year-end wrap-up

Well I read a lot of books this year!  Not my record, but pretty damn good and I feel that I have developed a pretty good long-term rhythm and stamina for reading at this stage in my life.  My shit changes all the time so my reading could come to a sudden halt (or more likely a slowdown) with some cool videogame or life opportunity happens.  For now, though, at the very least I will follow the principle of having a book on the go all the time.

Hard to summarize any single given theme for 2023's reading.  I was all over the map. Lots of new stuff and lots of my old favourites.  I continued to move forward on my fantasy series reading with another Robin Hobb trilogy (The Tawny Man, 3rd trilogy now two more left to go) and 4 more read in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga.  I also increased my history and non-fiction to 12 including two massive histories (one of the world and the other of Iran)

Here are my diversity stats.  Out of 93 books:

  • 28 were written by women
  • 10 by Canadians (including Jane Jacobs in there as an honorary Canadian and because it was about Quebec)
  • and 6 by writers of colour (yikes!)


The Bamboo Blonde saddened me to learn that Dorothy B. Hughes early mysteries are just not good.  The books are not that interesting or exciting and she is not able to transcend the sexism of the time.  The Sun Chemist also bummed me out that Lionel Davidson though interesting as a writer of "thrillers" that often concerns Israel and Jewish characters with real history are just not that thrilling.

The real bummers were National Lampoon's The Paperback Conspiracy just the worst kind of mean, stupid humour reeking with self-congratulatory privilege and smugness.  These guys thought they were the cool guys in Animal House when they were actually the uptight prigs.  Coming a close second, though way less hateful, was All the King's Men.  Just so much empty, repetitive wanking I guess from a time when you could convince the Pulitzer voters that run-on sentences meant depth if you are from the south.  


For non-fiction, Abbas' history of Iran was incredibly informative and an amazing combo of real history and readability.  Jane Jacobs A Question of Separatism which I went into with the deepest skepticism really floored and surprised me in that it argued for Quebec's independence and pretty much convinced me as well.

For fiction, I was really pleased to discover some new favourites in my preferred genres.  Ross Macdonald's The Zebra-Striped Hearse just had so much great detecting and beautifully captured the time and place of pre-60s California.  The Hot Spot was great but it was the hilariously ironic ending which really did it for me, a noir fate fare worse than death.  For manly war action, The Heights of Zervos was a great find for combining excellent on-ship intrigue in the first half and then tough, gripping war action for the second.  It's too bad his later books are supposed to be quite bad.  Finally, The Runaways perfectly captured the evocative adolescent escapism of YA fiction with the practical benevolence that is the best of British culture.

All in all a very enjoyable year of reading.  Much more awaits me in 2024 as my on-deck shelf will not shrink.

Like my waistline, not shrinking

Saturday, December 30, 2023

93. The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams

When I first saw this, I thought it was the prequel to Dead Calm, which got me excited, but that is actually called Aground.  The Sailcloth Shroud was published in  1960, the same year as Aground (and maybe just before?).  It starts off with the protagonist, Stuart Rogers, high up on a mast, sanding away, when two police officers come to visit him.  The first half of the book is very enjoyable, as the backstory is slowly teased out.  We learn that Rogers had bought a sailboat in Panama and with two hired deckhands had piloted it to Southshore, Texas.  Along the way, Baxter, the taciturn expert sailor had died of a heart attack.  When we get to the present of the book, that had all been settled.  This time, it was the other hired man, Keeler, a merchant marine who knew how to work  on big shipping vessels but didn't know how to sail,  who had been found dead.

The narrative is in two streams, with Rogers trying to help the aggressive cops and the more friendly FBI, but slowly becoming snagged himself in what become more and more suspicious circumstances as more info is revealed.  Because they were way out in the middle of the trip when Baxter died and it was hot, they eventually had to bury him at sea and now with Keeler dead (with $4000 unexplained cash) it is only Rogers' word that Baxter really died the way he said he did.

The only way to extricate himself is try and find out who Baxter was and that is the second narrative stream, as Rogers remembers the time together on the ship.  The second half, once we learn the entire backstory is only okay.  It's a bit of a simple story that Williams elongates and makes mysterious in the telling.  The action at the end was cool but nothing mind-blowing and while you sympathize with the protagonists, his biggest character trait is that he knows boats.   The denouement is a bit of an anti-romantic bummer which felt a bit forced to me, although perhaps more realistic.  This book is saved by Williams tight prose but the narrative is limited.

Friday, December 29, 2023

92. The Moon Spinners by Mary Stewart

A decent undergrad thesis for a lit major could be made by a deep analysis of the feminist balancing act of Mary Stewart's books.  The female protagonists walk a very thin, wavering line between being active heroines and passive recipients of masculine heroics.  As the protagonist, they are the smarter, richer characters, yet the dangers they get themselves in often involve a man who controls some of the decision-making and much of the information.  You get these capable, confident and brave young women who must help out but are rebuffed by the men and then often rebuff themselves whenever things get "dangerous".  It's an odd sensation as a contemporary reader where you can't quite tell if Stewart is feeling bound by the strictures of mid-century British gender rules or if she accepts them and maybe even want to reinforce them.  It was a confusing time to be an independent young woman.

In the Moon-Spinners, Nicolas is a young English woman who lives and works in Athens at the British embassy. She plans a trip to get away from the busy city during Easter week to go to a remote village on the coast of the island of Crete.  Due to a mixup with her visiting cousin, she is dropped off a day early at a trailhead in the mountains that leads down to the village.  She decides to explore a bit first and after some very beautiful descriptions of the mountains and wildflowers, she discovers a wound englishman, Mark and a greek guide named Lambis.  Supposedly, they had earlier stumbled upon a murder and were attacked themselves and are now hiding out, not sure what to do. They can't go to the village because the murderers were local and they are still holding the Mark's 15 year old brother.

Despite Mark's insistence that she just leave them alone and ignore them and go about her vacation, Nicola can't help but ask questions and investigate.  She soon learns that the murdered may be the proprietors of the hotel where she is staying. There isn't much of a mystery here.  The tension comes from her trying to find Mark's brother without being discovered that she knows what is going on.  She really is quite brave and the climax where she has to swim out at night is exciting and somehow sort of hot (she strips down to bra and panties which for 1962 feels quite racy).  There is the almost bare minimum of interaction between she and Mark, but somehow it leads to love as you knew it would and it feels romantic.  

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

91. Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

Reading Duffy reminded me of why I enjoy crime and so-called "pulp" fiction so much.  When it is done right, it is quick, efficient and can evoke intense reader reaction at the end.  I believe I picked up Duffy at S.W. Welch's closing sale.  The story starts off with a great line, "The day they cut Mrs. McKechnie, not much else happened in West Byfleet.  And it is a nasty scene, with those really scary English "villains" who are super polite and verbal as they tell you what horrible thing they are going to do to you.  In this case, they tie up and very deliberately cut the shoulder of a housewife and also, really horribly, stuff the cat into the rotisserie oven and cook it.

At first the crime seems to have zero motivation.  Mr. McKechnie is a small businessman in Soho who imports novelty items.  He is having an affair with his secretary (whom the men seemed to know about as they mentioned her name to the wife), but otherwise not mixed up in anything.  Soon after, however, he gets a phone call, again with the creepy eloquence and this time asking for money.  It's a blackmail scheme where the threat is actually done up front.  McKechnie goes to the police, who are basically useless, possibly to the point where they may be in on it.  He does have one friend on the force who refers him to an ex-cop, now security systems installer, called Duffy.

Duffy is almost the typical ex-cop character who got kicked off the force for a scandal.  What makes him interesting is that he is bisexual, the scandal was him picking up an underage boy.  As he begins to investigate back in his old patrol grounds, he finds the case is connected back to him.  He pokes his way around to finding the real badguy, the educated son of a Maltese villain who died in prison named Big Eddy.  This guy is an excellent British criminal leader, just evil as fuck in the guise of a modern businessman.  His success is due to patience and accumulating a rich file on all kinds of people.  When Duffy gets too close and then stupidly disregards his warning, Eddy pulls an incredibly nasty bit of blackmail material on him.  Oh man this was shocking even for me.  

Great, tight little read.  Recommended if you can find it.

Postscript:  This was actually written by Julian Barnes under a pseudonym!

90. The House of Elrig by Gavin Maxwell

I had never heard of Gavin Maxwell and just picked this book up on the strength of its old Pan aesthetic and the potential for some good British outdoorsieness. Maxwell was famous for the book Ring of Bright Water (which you can see promoted on the cover), a book about an otter he adopted.  I guess this one, a literary biography of his childhood, came after.  

It is indeed what I expected, a story about Maxwell growing up on various estates owned (or maybe leased, these artistocratic property machinations get very confusing) by various family members and in particular the house at Elrig.  It was just him and his family and other than his brothers and sister he basically saw no other children for most of his childhood.  He and his brother must have ravaged their land for wildlife because they ran free and collected everything, especially eggs.  There is a horrible moment where he meets a neighbouring land-owner adult who is also an egg collector but explains that among the pros, you are supposed to take the entire nest, not just a single egg!

The later chapters narrate his times at the 3 schools he was sent to (the first two sounded just horrific and reminded me of my own 8th grade in boarding school) and then his sickness and convalescence at the age of sixteen.  The ending is brief, where for the first time, Maxwell is allowed to invite a school friend to Elrig for the holidays and when asked what he would be doing during the holidays at home while they are hunting for an eagle's nest, the friend says "nothing as good as this" and it is a very fitting and satisfying ending to the book which neatly conveys his love of his childhood land and the struggles he had in the social realm. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

89. Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold (#7 in the Vorkosigan saga plus Borders of Infinity novella)

There are no non-human species
in this book so far
I enjoyed Ethan of Athos but it left me hankering to get back to Miles Vorkosigan's primary narrative so I jumped right into Borders of Infinity and then Brothers in Arms, both of which are collected in the weird over-sized Baen collection called Miles Errant.  I don't like the look of these books nor am I fan of their size, but I have to admit at this age they are somewhat easier to read when you are at home.

Borders of Infinity starts in medias res with Miles being released into a prisoner of war bubble run by victorious Cetagandans.  I say bubble because it is contained by a giant force sphere that regulates temperature, oxygen and light (and of course entrance and exit) that extends under the earth.  The other prisoners are from Marilac, a planet that Cetaganda had invaded and as we learn Miles is there as Admiral Naismith on a mission to rescue a high-ranking colonel.  The prisoners have descended to a near-barbaric state, fighting each other for what little resources they have and the women separated into a self-defensive tribe on one side of the sphere.  They were all part of a resistance army and one planet and Miles/Naismith uses his strategic skills to figure out the Cetagandans psychological tactics and unite the prisoners.  It's cool.

In Brothers in Arms, Miles is called to Earth, on duty at the embassy there (starting to see a small pattern in the plot structures with these books now as this is the second time where that is the setup).  His mercenaries are also here, stuck in a holding pattern and running out of funds while waiting for Barrayar to pay them.  Miles superior is a Komarran, a planet which Barrayar subjugated and Miles is suspicious.  Soon after, he is kidnapped and discovers that a clone of him has been made as part of a long, elaborate plan of revenge.  

The politics of the series in this book are interesting, especially at this time when Israel is invading Gaza in retaliation of the surprise terrorist attack.  Everything is quite abstracted at the planetary level but there are parallels.  Komarr is strategically important because it has the jump gate next to Barrayar and Komarr allowed the Cetagandans to use that in their attempted invasion of Barrayar.  So after Barrayar pushed back the Cetagandans, they then invaded and took over Komarr.  The book does not judge this negatively, seeming to frame it as a necessity and glosses over the details of how one planet could subjugate another.  The perspective seems to be that atrocities were committed and they were bad but now that Barrayar is in control, it would be best for Komarr to join up and fit in.  Questionable politics and I'll be curious to see if they are explored more deeply in future books.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

88. Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (#6 in the Vorkosigan saga)

This is sort of the 6th book in the Vorkosigan saga.  I guess chronologically (by story, not publication date) it comes after Cetaganda and before Brothers in Arms.  However, it does not have Miles at all.  It is really a side adventure taking place in the Vorkosigan universe, with Eli Quinn, one of the characters Miles meets in his side job as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii mercenary fleet.  Quinn is not even the main protagonist, but more of a catalyst who makes the connection with Miles but really could have been any intelligence agent.

The premise interesting and promising.  Dr. Ethan Urquhart is a geneticist on a remote, struggling world whose extreme religious dogma outlaws women altogether.  They aren't on the planet at all and aren't even allowed to visit.  They create new children (boys only) in the lab.  They are already struggling with limited resources and a dwindling population when Ethan discovers that the precious genetic materials of high end ovaries he had ordered was somehow swapped with discarded cow parts.  He is sent to Kline station to try and get a refund.  It's the naive fish out of water story that jettisons him quickly into adventure and intrigue as he finds himself pursued by scary Cetagandan agents, who seem to think the crappy shipment he got back on Athos had something precious in it.

It's a fun adventure and you get to see some of the workings of the backend of a space station.  It never really paid off as I had hoped, though, as the idea of the all-male society as well as Ethan's relative inexperience in greater space never really paid off story wise.  It was an enjoyable adventure and I hope that some of what we learn about Quinn as a character and her backstory (she is from Kline originally) will come up in later stories.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

87. Races: the Trials & Triumphs of Canada's Fastest Family by Valerie Jerome

Harry Jerome was Canada's fastest man and an early international sports celebrity for Canada.  There is a statue of him in Stanley Park, though I fear that many younger people do not know about him and his contributions.  I have a tangential connection to the family and it was my aunt who is good friends with Valerie who passed me on this book.  It's really more of a family history.  Though the narrative is anchored around Harry Jerome's life and sporting career, you can't understand him without understanding his family and the world they grew up in.  Even without the focus on a famous person, the book is a fascinating and often infuriating personal history of what it was like to grow up black in Canada in the second half of the twentieth century.

Canada is a great country in many ways, but I am not one of those who is under the illusion we are somehow morally superior to the United States when it comes to social issues.  I grew up in a small town in Vancouver Island and the racism there was blatant.  It was particularly directed against the First Nations but also Indian, Chines and Vietnamese immigrants.  There would have been a lot more racism against Black people but there simply weren't any.  Still, reading this book was pretty painful. The shit was way worse if you actually were black.  So I wasn't surprised by any of it, but it hurts nonetheless to read about the hateful behaviour of so many people in Canada towards the Jerome family.  It goes from the bottom with school kids throwing rocks at them on their first day in North Vancouver to the top, with national sports journalists constantly attacking Harry Jerome for his supposed arrogance and aloofness, calling him a quitter when he didn't finish a race because he snapped his hamstring.

It's really the sports journalists that anger me the most.  This shit still goes on today, it's just much much subtler because there are now so many Black athletes and their power has grown.  But the double standard is still there.  It's especially ire-inducing in Canada when we have so few good athletes that stand out on the world stage and when one does, who really is a testament to Canada's freedom (though much of Jerome's success was also done despite a lot of racist blockages put in his way), the press just tear him down.  In this case, it was primarily fueled by classic racism but also exacerbated by Canada's pathetic self-loathing and petty envy where we have no pride and can't value our own.  

I'm ranting. The book itself is written in a very straightforward manner.  The racism that they suffered externally was even worse inside the family, as their mother who passed for white (or tried) was extremely abusive. I wish there had been more analysis of her character but possibly those wounds were already difficult for the author to want to dig any deeper.  She not only abused them physically but seemed to hate and resent any success they had.  The father was very loving but worked as a porter (also super racist as these were the few jobs that black men could have in Canada and he was constantly getting punished for speaking out against injustice on the job) so was away for weeks at a time.  Harry's response to the racism and abuse in and out of his house was to close himself down, turn the other cheek and just work.  I think this is part of the reason we don't ever get a rich picture of his personality; much of it was suppressed out of self-protection.

The story itself is so interesting and their challenges so rough that I am glad I read the book and would hope it gets read by many younger Canadians.  I was left wanting a bit more depth as to who the family members were as people to be around, but the story stands up on its own and gives you enough to understand why those things might be hard to dig into.  Even though Canada has grown a lot, we still have a lot of work to do and the backbone of this country is still run by east coast white male elites.  It trickles down to the culture and allows us to keep being blind and stubborn.

Friday, December 08, 2023

86. Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold (#5 in the Vorkosigan saga)

I am firmly in the Vorkosigan saga now and trying to decide whether I should read another one immediately after this or take another break.  So far, each book survives on its own, but there are references to Miles' past exploits as well as the very complex galactic politics around which civilization controls which jump gates that make me want to keep reading lest I forget it all again.  For instance, in Cetaganda, Miles and his physically superior and mentally inferior cousin Ivan travel on a diplomatic mission to Cetaganda.  This powerful and advanced empire made an attempt to invade some region (Wikipedia reminds me it was the Hegen hub) to control a jump gate.  Miles had foiled their plot in The Vor Game.  I remember it all coming quite fast at the end of that book, so it was nice to have a single plot line here, focused on a single adversary/allied civilization.

Barraya is ostensibly though warily at peace with Cetaganda and Miles and Ivan are sent to deliver a gift and participate in the funeral services for the Queen Emperor.  They get into trouble upon docking, when they are directed to the wrong airlock and as soon as it opens, they are attacked.  They rebuff their assailant, who leaves a very high-quality stun gun and a high tech sealed cylinder.  Instead of reporting this, Miles, telling himself he wants to avoid a diplomatic incident, starts investigating on his own.

We learn about the complex Cetagandan society, which is run by the haut, a genetically modified superior class and the ghem, lower in social scale (though still quite elite) and the ones who control the military and economy.  The haut are so high class that the women go around in floating chairs hidden by force shields so they are basically floating eggs at social events.  Their beauty is so rarified and their status so elevated that only other haut see them and high-ranking ghem to whom they are sometimes married. 

The plot involves a conspiracy to steal the genetic material that the haut use to continue to improve their species and maintain power.  The tension for Miles is to figure out the mystery without involving his own local superior or the ambassador, because he doesn't want the case taken away from him.  The risk is that Barrayar will be used as a scapegoat for the theft.  It's a lot of fun with some cool high tech and a neat look at a super wealthy and advanced society in this universe.

Friday, December 01, 2023

85. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Mongomery (reread)

So this is my second time reading this Canadian classic.  This time I read it to my daughter.  It is an ideal night-time reading book as it is divided into fairly short chapters, each of which is an episode of its own.  I don't have much to add on this second reading beyond my first-time feelings.  It holds up and maybe even gets stronger on a re-reading (also really helps to have a listener who one hopes is absorbing the goodness).  I teared up several times and was basically crying at the last chapter (to the somewhat sympathetic but mainly derision of my tween daughter who is in her anti-sentimental phase (at least I hope it's a phase).

One thing that struck me on the second reading is how powerful and important Anne's relationship with Matthew is and yet how actual little real interaction they have in the book.  Their relationship is basically static and wonderful.  I don't quite know what to make of this but when I think of it, Anne has no direct relations with any other adult male either.  Maybe this is just that we are in a woman's world here, maybe something deeper about men being an unchanging external force which Anne's spirit reacts to or elides.  

This edition was published in the states and has a very nice afterword by Jennifer Lee Carrell which has an opening sentence that captures the book very well: 

...a bright dream of paradise:  not an ecstatic vision of heaven but a gentle glow of domestic happiness hedged with just enough shadow to make it precious.

Anyhow, a classic and deservedly so. Read it.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

84. Yellow Line by Sylvia Olsen

I grabbed this one from the free box on Esplanade really for my daughter.  At first glance it looked to be about a small town in B.C. where the First Nations and the white kids are separated, which it was.  I grew up in a similar situation and had some exposure and interaction with First Nations kids and people.  Out here in hipster Montreal, she doesn't have that opportunity so I want her at least to be aware of the reality of their existence on a day-to-day level.  Now that I've read it, I think it's a bit too old for her.  Though it is large print and a quick read, it is really targeted at teen readers.

The story is from the perspective of a white kid, Vince, whose dad is in forestry and is a straight up racist and whose mom says the right things but basically believes things should be the way they are.  The way they are is captured in the school bus ride where the First Nations kids (which they call "Indians" in the book, as we did) all sit at the front of the bus and the white kids at the back with an empty row in between.  Likewise, the First Nations stay on the reserve.  The conflict begins when the Vince's childhood friend who went to the city and sort of grew up starts dating a cool Indian kid called Steve. At the same time, a First Nations girl who seems quite cute starts giving Vince the eye and he can't get her out of his head.  Vince's initial resistance to Steve and his friend causes a big conflict at the high school with the Indian kids threatening to beat Vince up.  Vince tells his parents about the relationship which then causes a real furor and fucks it up for his friend whose parents are going to send to live with her uncle back in the city.

It's a very short book (I read it in one sitting) and at times a bit awkward.  Some of the details seem a bit wrong, like I don't know if there are rugby teams in small town B.C. (the Indian kids all play rugby while the white kids play basketball which doesn't ring true to me).  I get the feeling that Olsen really understands teenage issues and the racism towards the First Nations in B.C. but her perspective of shit-kicking B.C. logging towns is from someone who has only lived in Victoria.  Otherwise, though, I think for a story aimed at teens who aren't big readers, it keeps moving along and captures fairly well some of the realities of that racism and the complex interactions between what we are calling settlers today and the Indigenous people in western Canada.  I may keep it hanging around until my daughter gets older.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

83. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Once again, I cannot remember who recommended this book to me.  I was quite looking forward to it as it appeared to be both an exploration of corruption and a political machine in the south and also a literary masterpiece.  It won the Pulitzer.  Well, unfortunately it sucked.  This is quite likely the worst book of the year for me (I need to go back and review as there were a few not good books in 2023 for me) and definitely going on my list of top 10 worst of all-time.  I was already nervous when I flipped through it when debating whether or not to read it a few times and seeing all the run-on sentences.  Once, I actually started, I realized quickly that I was in for a real slog.

The principle issue is the writing style.  I don't know what tradition this comes out of and I did read that it was originally intended as an epic poem.  I'm sorry but endless run-on sentences and divergences barfing out words to try and capture a feeling is not poetry.  This was just self-indulgence.  Why use one or two adjectives, when you can use five!  I appreciate that this is partly a question of taste and there is not a definite right or wrong of short versus long sentences.  I was brought up in the age of Strunk & White and so short, declarative sentences is drilled into my brain.  Still, I love the rich, elongated prose of Trollope and George Eliot. This was just slogging.  Each time I turned a page, I prayed that we would be getting past another endless digression that had nothing to do with the story (if there was one, more on that later) and desperately needed an editor to cull away the fat.  There were some interesting ideas and some strong imagery here and there, but it was all buried under so many useless words that they were stripped of any power.

I could have excused the prose style if underneath it there was something more solid, but sadly much worse than the prose, the very foundation of the book is weak and inconsistent.  Is it a story of the rise of a powerful machine politician, the "Boss" Willie Stark, in the South as it seems to be from the name and the cover and the beginning?  No, because he just skips the entire part where he goes from hard-working naive country bumpkin to cynical, brutal Boss.  Is it about the evolution of the protagonist, Jack Burden (get it "Burden") who comes from a privileged family and slacks his way to being the Boss's fixer?  Maybe, sort of except for the guy doesn't really change or do anything but take orders until the very, very end where he has some sort of epiphany in the last few pages which has little resonance and is just pat.

I was even willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, until the ending. I get that it is sort of based on the real life of Huey Long who was assassinated. The problem here is that the killing is done based entirely on two cheap motivational tropes for character that I hate the worst in any narrative: miscommunication and excessive moral outrage (and in this case to really make it terrible, it's a brother who is upset because he thinks his sister is a whore so we have stupid simplistic sexual ethics as a factor as well). It's just a completely fabricated device I guess to re-enact the real history but felt more like a manipulative way to try and wrap up a narrative of which he had clearly no idea where it was going or what it was about.

Robert Penn Warren seemed like a decent guy and I am pretty ignorant about Southern American literature so could be that I am missing some crucial elements.  As a reader, though, this to me is the worst kind of example of American pretentiousness without the real substance and discipline that makes truly great literature.  The good thing about reading this, though, is that it has really got me jazzed about moving on to something better and has thus further spurred my reading motivation!

Saturday, November 18, 2023

82. Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

Another nice old book (hardback with slipcover this time) whose provenance I have completely forgotten.  It has now returned to the free library circulation, this time left in a box in Toronto.  I hope that it gets read again.  Flight of the Falcon is the story of an Italian tour guide, Armino Fabbio, a "courier" as I guess they called them at the time.  He is the charming fellow who leads the packs of British and American tourists on and off the bus to their various stops, organizes their hotel rooms and helps them with their little emergencies.  We get a few chapters of this work in detail, which I quite enjoyed, before we get to the main narrative.

One night, encountering a drunken homeless woman collapsed in front of a church, he slips a 10,000 lira note in her hand.  For some reason, the encounter haunts him and he awakens the next to day to learn that she had been murdered.  He also allows himself to realize that she may well have been his old nanny Marta, whom he had lost when his mother and he left their small town in Italy with a once-conquering but now fleeing Nazi officer.  This brings him back to his home town of Ruffano, which has a rich history (as I imagine do many cities in Italy) involving a mad Duke who after living a life of excess, trampled through the town in a chariot and then was torn to pieces by the townspeople.  Now, the university, simmering with its own violence as the rivalries between the Commerce and Engineering department and the Arts department threatens to blow up into a civil war.

I don't know if these kinds of crazy battles and what they call "rags" very violent and unfunny (at least to me) pranks done between these rival student groups were a thing of the turbulent '60s (when this takes place and was written) or is some weird Euro behaviour.  It's pretty wild!  The main narrative for the protagonist, though, is retracing his family roots while trying to find out what happened to Marta without alerting the police to his own minor involvement (the giving of the lira was enough to implicate him in the eyes of the suspicious Italian police).  This leads him to the path of his dominant older brother, whom he believe to have been shot down in the war but is now playing a leading role in the town and in the guise of organizing the big pageant (with a historical re-enactment) may also be planning something even larger and more dangerous.

Flight of the Falcon was an interesting read, somewhat of a thriller but more closer to I guess what is called today "literary fiction".  There is a lot of emphasis on architecture and old paintings and religious artifacts, which bored me but the story of Fabbio's reconnection with his family history and the politics of the town were quite engaging and entertaining.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

81. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

This is the second in her Wayfarer series.  I saw a link to a panel she was one that was entitled Cozy Sci-Fi and I think that is a pretty accurate description, though I might add Woke to it (in a tongue-in-cheek non-perjorative way) for Woke & Cozy Sci-fi as a sub-genre.  This second one continues to be absorbing and readable as the first, though because it only focused on two characters, at a certain time in the middle it got a bit too into their personal anxieties for my taste.  Fortunately, the tight structure which deftly brings the narratives together makes the second half a real page-turner and quite enjoyable.

The story leaves off from The Long Way to a Small and Lonely Planet with the newly wiped AI (called Lovelace at first until she changes her name to Sidra) from the ship and Pepper, the tech who had a smaller role both heading to the moon of Coriol, Pepper's home.  The big deal is that Sidra is now illegally in an artificial human-looking body and struggling to get used to it.  The first half of the book is our introduction to the progressively nerdy lifestyle of Pepper's neighbourhood (and her partner, stammering artist Blue).  This was all a bit of wish fulfillment fantasy for lefty geeks, full of diversity and freedom and community but no real downsides or authority.   

What kept me engaged here is that this narrative is then interspersed with the story of Jane 23, a 10-year old human girl living in some kind of factory with many other Janes of different numbers, all engaged in cleaning and repairing scrapped tech under the watchful and sometimes brutal eyes (or rather blank chrome faces) of robotic Mothers.  Her story is really cool, a gripping bildungsroman and a dark analogy of our own selfish consumerism taken to an extreme (where we sadly seem to be heading).  As Jane's story advances, we start to see how it connects to the present of Pepper, Blue and Sidra and it all comes together very satisfyingly in the end.

Overall, I think I enjoyed the first one more just because it was more varied and they travelled all over the place in their ship so you got more world-building.  However, this second book demonstrates that Chambers skill as a writer already improved.  There are two more books in this series as well as a fifth rumored to be coming out in 2024.  So I'll keep picking these up new when I need something good to read and a bookstore to support.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

80. Cairo Intrigue by William Manchester

When we went to Vancouver last summer, my book-hunting was not yielding any real finds and I was a bit desperate.  I had hit up all the stores on the west side and though there are a few good used book stores there, the woods were almost empty of game.  Pulp Fiction closing their broadway store hurt as well.  So when we made it to the east side, I was a bit desperate and I saw this book in a nice flat box of old paperbacks.  I didn't have high hopes but it looks beautiful and I picked it up.  Immediately after, in that same store, I made some major scores.  And then the next store along Commercial Drive, I found a bunch more treasures from my list.  Not only that, but I also found a second copy of Cairo Intrigue!  I probably wouldn't have even bought it had I found it somewhat later that day.  Oddly, good condition copies of this book seem to be going for $20-30 online, so I guess it has some value.

It's not a masterpiece, but actually a quite entertaining everyman gets caught up in international intrigue narrative, along the lines of Eric Ambler but with more exciting set pieces and less subtle characterization.  The entire first half takes place on a transatlantic passenger cruise, which I really enjoyed.  Ben Sparks is a commercial agent for an American pharmaceutical firm who gets sent to try and complete some business deals in Jerusalem.  Just before he gets on the boat, he meets an Egyptian businessman who wants him to make a special connection with the government over there and gives him a letter of introduction.  Immediately after that, Sparks is attacked by a dangerous Arab on the Manhattan streets, then shot at from the dock just after he has boarded.  And we are off to the races.

The background plot is centered around these introduction papers, which are of course not what they seem, and are connected with a complex conspiracy between Cypriot and Egyptian extremists.  Manchester was better known for his non-fiction work and I am not sure if people at the time would have such a detailed understanding of the Middle East at that time or if it was just him being a politics nerd, but it seemed way too complex for the average thriller reader.  I'm actually dabbling in that history myself and I had to take a break and look a bunch of things up!  In any case, the actual politics don't impact the thrill ride for Sparks all that much (the letter, I guess, is what people who think they are smart call a "maguffin").

And there are thrills.  There is a ton of cool action and an especially cool scene where he gets locked in a Turkish steam bath.  Both the stress and intensity of the situation, they are basically getting steamed alive while trying to figure out how to get out, and the way they escape are really well done.  The finale involves sneaking out of Egypt through Gaza and into Israel.  This is a very different Gaza from today, with lots of open spaces sporadically populated (including some refugee camps) and a porous border guarded by U.N. patrols.

Also interesting is the style and tone.  Manchester is American and the protagonist as well, but the book felt quite British in the way he is a humble hero and how the real cool badasses are both British and from the public school low-key WWII hero.  Maybe that was just the default school for these kinds of books at the time.  Oh yes, the original title was "Beard the Lion" which is much better.  Anyhow, not a masterpiece but thoroughly entertaining.

Friday, November 03, 2023

79. The Mystery of the Ruby Queens (a Connie Blair mystery) by Betsy Allen

I found this in a well-curated antiques store on West Broadway in Vancouver.  It turns out to be a fairly vanilla and competent mystery written for I guess young women or maybe even high school girls in the 60s.  Betsy Allen is the pseudonym for Betty Cavanna, a successful and long-lived author of mystery books for girls.  I don't have much to say about this book.  Immediately, it seemed more of a lifestyle/aspirational read as the focus is on Connie's cool job in Philadelphia, living with her single aunt ("Living with Aunt Bet was fun.  Although she was Connie's mother's sister, Aunt Bet didn't seem middle-aged; certainly not thirty-seven."!) and her outfit.

Connie is working at the restoration of a colonial house, copying patterns and colours of the wallpapers that are revealed.  There is actually some nice travelogue and bits of history here.  The mystery involves the deceased owner of the house, who gave and then ungave various antiques and in particular a set of valuable figurines (the ruby queens of the title).  They have disappeared and Connie senses they weren't just misplaced.  There are many potential suspects among the various people working at the house and connected to the family but the mystery itself is never well-developed enough to interest the reader or give a chance to even figure it out.  It's all kind of gentle and pleasant with a lot of white people not really stressing all that much.  There is also the rescue and care for a mother cat and her litter (though how she got into the chimney is never explained).  

I'm curious who was the audience for these books.  I'm even more curious why a semi-orgasmic Debby Harry type was the choice for the cover here.

Did Betty Cavana come up with the colour title
concept before John D. MacDonald?

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

78. The Knot by Tim Wynne-Jones

I'm happy to have stumbled upon this Toronto-based canlit mystery/thriller, although once again, I can't remember where.  Tim Wynne-Jones is a successful author in the YA and children's picture book field, with a few adult novels earlier in his career.  The Knot is from 1982 and is centered around Toronto's even-then gentrifying Cabbagetown neighbourhood.  I imagine today that it is entirely gentrified and any of the neat characters in this book couldn't sniff a room in a boarding house there.  

The Knot in the story is a gang of errant youths who have been organized under a Fagin-like character called Gob, a seemingly crazy panhandler in a decked out wheelchair who has connections above him to more professional crime figures.  He rules the children with a powerful combination of charisma and fear, using them for petty crimes some that are just creative pranks but more importantly as observers and gatherers of data that will lead to much bigger scores.

There are quite a few characters in The Knot.  Crawford, the cop on disability leave because he got shot in the leg (and suffering psychologically from it) could be considered the protagonist.  He gets only slightly more billing than Crunkscully, the escapee from a psych hospital who is suffering from degenerative alzheimer's and is trying to remember that he is looking for his long-lost son.  Crunkscully lives in a boarding house with a great cast of the urban marginalized that used to make up so much of the character of Toronto. We also follow Stink, a 13 year-old juvenile delinquent who is the best sneaker in the Knot.  These characters lives intertwine around Gob and his plots and plans.

It's quite an enjoyable read.  You want to find out Crunkscully's backstory, who Gob is and what he is up to and you care about the characters, especially the rooming house gang who become a kind of broken and demented street irregulars for the reluctant Crawford.  There is clearly a love for working class Toronto in all its squalor and the transition to yuppiedom is well-captured.  The ending is somewhat preposterous but fun.  This is a nice little slice of Canadian genre fiction that I would recommend.

The last paragraph of the blurb is a bit much

Saturday, October 28, 2023

77. Mist over Pendle by Robert Neill

Another random pickup whose origin I've completely forgotten.  Reminder to self, I need to get into the habit of making a little note in the book as sometimes they'll stay on my on-deck shelf for over a year. I thought from the cover that this was going to be more of a pastoral horror story along the lines of Harvest Home.  I was quite wrong and happy to be so, at least for the first half, as Mist over Pendle is really a historical fiction and somewhat of a bildungsroman.  It is a fictional telling of the (I have since learned) famous Pendle Witch Trials of 17th century northern England.

The story starts out with the history of a puritan family which leads to their problem of the youngest daughter, who has no prospects and the family little money (or will) to provide a dowry for her to wed her off.  The real problem is that she is charming and headstrong and they all suck, just the worst kind of uptight moralists who are constantly scandalized and punishing themselves and each other.  Fucking Puritans.  Her fate seems pretty shitty until her brother remembers a distant uncle of some means who may be interested in providing for her.  He sends for her in a gruff, commanding tone that offends her family and then really pisses them off when he sends her 20 silver coins to do with what she will (and what she will is buy proper, fashionable clothes for the trip out, the horror!).  This first section is deliciously enjoyable and somewhat nerve-wracking as she has no idea what this older male relative will be like.  

He turns out to be awesome, like her when he was younger but now a Justice of the County and well respected in Pendle County.  He immediately recognized what a bunch of assholes her family was but it also surprised at what she is like, as he had expected more of a docile maiden.  The two end up making an awesome investigative team, as she has with and manners, deep learning of the scripture (which helps endear her to the Puritans in the region) and writing skills (to be his clerk).  It's such a great set up that one could see an entire television series based on these two.

Unfortunately, the adventure we get here, which is the bulk of the narrative, is only okay.  There are dark clouds over Pendle.  People and children have died in odd experiences, often after conflict with beggar women who live in the forest.  Actually, the back story is quite interesting.  It's the way it is presented that leaves it lacking, with little real suspense.  The reader pretty much knows what is going on about halfway through the book and much of the plot concerns them trying to get evidence to be able to convict the witches.  This is more than was done in the actual history and thus further critiques this book.  It was written in 1951 and Neill comes from an establishment family in the Lancashire region, so he seems to reinforce the old narrative about witches, when we pretty much understand today that these trials were a way for Protestant england to force its authority on the marginalized (and further oppress women and destroy traditions that connected people to the land).  It's ironic because by centering the narrative on a young woman and making her super awesome, he was upending some of the gender politics of the time.

The descriptions of the region, the people, their social structures and culture are rich and very well done. Despite my misgivings about the storyline in the second half, this still was a rewarding read as it helped me to better understand this period in England, and particularly the conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in this time when the two religions traded power back and forth in England.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

76. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

I only learned recently that Japan has a rich and plentiful tradition of the murder mystery genre.  This is probably a simplification but my understanding is that there are three broad periods/styles in the Japanese detective fiction genre.  Honkaku is the orthodox style, which I guess is the more classical mystery and follows certain conventions.  Later came the Shakai ha or the social school which is more grounded in realism and takes into account the social and political context.  More recently there has been a turn back to a neo-orthodox style called Shin Honkaku ha but more self-conscious with a real emphasis on complex mysteries that the reader could theoretically solve.  There is a ton of great books in there!

I am not sure where the Honjin Murders is located.  It's definitely orthodox in the sense that it is a classic locked-room mystery and supposedly the reader has all the elements to solve it themselves. However, it also does an excellent job of setting the place and social context:  1937 rural Japan and in particular the compound of a noble Honjin family.  Honjin were the family who managed the roadside inns for the nobility and thus were themselves conferred a high social status.  In this case with the restoration of the Emporer the Ichiyanagi family no longer ran a honjin, but they were still an upper class family in the region.

The writing is very self-conscious and involves the reader.  The narrator speaks to us, giving us context and setting the stage, acting sort of like a puzzle master who is teasing us to figure out the murder.  It feels slightly too straightforward, but this may be a product of translation where the cultural elements do not quite come across to my western mind.  In any case, it is not a flaw, just a question of style.  The way that the locations and the details of all the elements involved in the murder are presented are extremely clear.  I could visualize almost all of it, especially the layout of the compound. There also is a map of the place where the murder took place.  I am really bad at staying focused on all those details, so I have to say that this book excels at description.

It also does a really good job of explaining the social relations of the region as well some Japanese traditions and how the are changing.  There is quite a dark coda at the end where we see how the war impacts everybody beyond the murder itself.  

The Honjin Murders is a real detective mystery nerd book.  He drops the names of several authors and specific books that influenced the murder and actual detective books feature into the plot itself.  I already have a few of the John Dickson Carr books on my hunting list.  I may now have to add an A.A. Milne book!  I myself am not too motivated to try and solve these mysteries myself but I really enjoy following along with the detecting process.  My one beef is that it is only at the end that significant details of certain characters' personalities are revealed and these would have had a major influence on how I thought about the crime.  So though he lays out all the physical clues that smarter people than I may have figured out the how of the murder, he actually hides the social clues so you really could not have guessed the why.

There is a detective here, the youthful and sloppy Kosuke Kindaichi, who I guess would become quite famous in Japan.  Yokomizo wrote 77 books! Here is a great piece that better explains the mystery scene in Japan and Yokomizo's role in it.  This was a lot of fun.  I recommend.

Monday, October 23, 2023

75. The Spring Madness of Mr. Sermon by R. F. Delderfield

If you see a Delderfield, you gotta pick it up.  That's my new motto.  Can't remember where I found this, but my on-deck shelf was groaning and yet I knew I had to have it.  I took it with me on a trip to America which would involve much hanging with friends.  I thought it would offer easy reading in small bursts and this turned out to be true.

It starts out with a pretty funny bang.  Milquetoast professor at a middling prep school suddenly loses his shit and beats the snot out of a bad kid who set off a stink bomb.  He then goes home and realizes that his marriage and home life are also no longer tolerable so he takes off with a rucksack and 8 pounds in his pocket.  The first third of the book is deeply enjoyable, with a Delderfieldian collection of rough and honest and lovable English people and a series of situations that are never tense, all contributing to the awakening of confidence in Mr. Sermon.  His first encounter is really the best, where he hitches a ride with an antique seller, helps him out in his business by pretending to be a gentleman buyer and then gets totally drunk while entertaining the locals on the piano.  It's just a great party scene.

Eventually, the narrative settles down to Mr. Sermon living in this beachside town, getting a job as the waterfront supervisor and developing a friendship with a younger woman whose dad is the headmaster of the good kind of school that Mr. Sermon wishes he had taught at.  For the reader, you really want to know how it will resolve and unfortunately, the central conflict reverts back to his relationship with his wife. The book loses its spontaneous fun and starts to fall into weird early '60s gender clichés and unrealistic emotional developments.  It's all done gently and thoughtfully but is ultimately quite silly and deeply sexist, to the point where it is almost cancellable in today's environment (his wife just needed a good spanking).  I give Delderfield the benefit of the doubt and it was more the simplicity of the way they turned their marriage around that turned me off more than the stereotypes (and honestly these were much more bearable than when John D. MacDonald does them).

So the second half fell flat for me but I still really enjoyed the book.  The opening chapters are worth it alone.  It's ultimately a middle-age male fantasy, wrapped up in rich locations and characters with a love of all this good and simple in non-snobby England.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

74. All Systems Red (book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

This is really a novella but I didn't want to buy the entire 4-book set until I knew I would like it and if you held it in your hands you would say it's a book (albeit stretched out with lots of white space and extra pages like a high school essay).  A colleague at work who has good nerdy taste recommended it to me and it was a good recommendation!  It's a great concept and you jump right into it.  The protagonist is Murderbot or more officially a SecUnit, a cyborg of cloned human material who is a mandatory (for insurance reasons) part of the equipment package the "company" sends out when people contract it for planet-surveying services.

The company's priority is profit and does not have the tightest quality standards, which Murderbot has figured out.  It has hacked its own governance module and is therefore effectively a free-thinker. It's real goal seems to be to want to just chill out and watch endless hours of downloaded entertainments.  The concept is immediately compelling to anyone who has been trapped in an undemanding and thankless job with incompetent, uncaring management and not enough to actually engage the brain.  Despite his attempts to remain distant from the humans, however, this crew turns out to be quite cool and Murderbot does get engaged when at first they are put in danger by the fauna of the planet and more so when they figure out they are being sabotaged.

It's a tight, sparse read with only hints at the setting of the greater galaxy and the complexities of the company.  As the reader, you are caught up in Murderbot's sardonic, yet ultimately sensitive, voice and the action of the situation.  It really does a great job of combing likeable personalities and the emotions associated with Murderbot being forced to open up to them with cool tactical combat and strategy against this unknown enemy.  I can't wait to read the next one.

Monday, October 16, 2023

73. Quai d'Orsay 1945-51 by Jacques Dumaine

Another undocumented freebox find, I realize now that it is a minor classic in diplomatic history.  Jacques Dumaine was the chef du protocol of the French department of Foreign Affairs immediately after the end of WWII.  His diary was published posthumously (he sadly died a few years into a plum job as the Ambassador to Portugal) and was a big hit because of both its behind the scenes look at the political scene in France and Europe as well as a thoughtful and often humorous introspection into humanity.  Each chapter is a year which is then broken up into various days. This is an abridged edition of the original published in French.  I feel like I cheated but seeing as this one took me two weeks to read, it is probably for the best.

His opinions on Churchill and the complex relationships between the US and the other European states, especially around the potential re-armament of Germany were interesting and revealing.  Much of the internal politics around the French president, prime minister and various political parties I couldn't really follow as I know almost nothing about it.  Much of it was out of context and that contributed to the slowness of my reading.  

My uncle used to work for Foreign Affairs Canada and he once introduced me to the person who had been the head of protocol for Israel.  He said that that must have been a tough job.  I was a teenager and didn't really understand but today after having done some event planning and other semi-delicate administrative organization, I really get it.  Dumaine's job must have been an incredible pain in the ass!  Not only do you have to know all the minutest details of the rules of protocol involving super important people, you also have constant political pressure from various interested parties trying to get you to break those rules.  He kvetches about it, but always in a philosophical, positive spirit and seems to have done the job well. 

Another real pleasure in the book are his various quotations.  I'll share my favourites here:

"My personal definition of the word "relaxation" is any interval of time which separates me from a fresh irritation."

"As Cocteau says, let us give the impression of having organised that which we cannot prevent."

Analogous but more nuanced take than Churchill's on young versus old politicians:

On Truman defeating Dewey and all too relevant today concerning the media and political class's obsession over polls:

This is part of his story of Ristic, who was the Yugoslavian Ambassador to France and at first sent to Paris as basically a powerless figurehead, under the control of the communist political officers there, who then took over.  I like the idea of the quiet, seemingly meek man who is actually a badass and I especially like the middle sentence comparing him to a rod of steel:

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

72. The Blue Wall: Street Cops in Canada by Carsten Stroud

I found this at a wonderful little corner of an otherwise quite depressing place: the used bookshop/fundraiser at mountain-side entrance of the Montreal General Hospital.  I discovered it a few years ago after suffering from a basketball-caused case of Mallet Finger.  It was a miracle that I got in at all to see a specialist (though once I did, he was excellent and I got a full recovery) and a double miracle that there is this little corner crammed with english paperbacks and hardbacks mostly from the 70s, 80s and 90s.  The only problem is that it is open at limited hours, probably because it is staffed by volunteers.  I don't know if they get regular donations of books or if they have some single source because the shelves are stuffed and the few times I have come back, they seem to get restuffed.  Wherever the books come from, it is a pretty strong representation of late-twentieth century mainstream book-buying taste.  There is a heavy emphasis on big best-seller fiction, the Canadian literary establishment with a smattering of genre and British popular stuff.  I made no major finds, but a few unknown gems were lurking in there and The Blue Wall is one of them.

Though it started off a bit too wordy and descriptive for me with a geographical overview of Vancouver, once it gets into it's bread and butter the actual daily (nightly, actually) police work in various cities across Canada, it becomes eminently readable, thought-provoking and informative.  There is some implicit bias here, given that Stroud seems to have worked as a cop but he is mostly up front with his perspective and makes a real effort to think the issues through in a fair way.  In particular, there is zero mention of race other than First Nations (which both he and the cops mention treat with s surprising amount of sympathy and awareness of history; one of the cops goes on a rant about how Canada is basically enacting a slow-moving genocide), nor of corruption.  There are a couple of simplistic straw men, particularly a Haligonian college girl from money and hyper-naive socialist ideals.  There is a long and well-researched (he goes deep into the history of the gun) narrative on an officer who got killed in a bank robbery that turned into a hostage situation. He is of course a good cop with a family and it is really sad, but also plays into the classic narrative of the police officer sacrificing his life for the public.  How many innocent Canadians were also killed by police in this time and what about their long narrative?

Overall, though, this a rich portrayal of the lives of street cops in Canada in 1980 with lots of interesting context, like the history of gun laws in Canada.  He sat with the cops working the beat on Davie Street (which is a nice complement to Vancouver Vice), the badass armed robbery squad in Montreal (with a wild breakdown of how they stop bank robbers), cops in First Nations country in northern Ontario (really sad), Toronto squad cars, Winnipeg beat cops, back to Vancouver for the drug squad taking down low-level heroin dealers and addicts with little tidbits in between.  There is a small but powerful section where he interviews early women in the police force that both reminds the reader of how insanely sexist things were (though maybe still are given some of the recent shit in the Canadian military) and how strong these women were.  The ending is an excellent essay on the demise of the street cop and the growing separation between the police and the public.  This essay begins with an explanation on the difference between the values of a Canadian police officer compared to an American one, another distinction which I suspect has narrowed today with our massive increase in police budgets and culture of militarization.  According to him, Canadian cops were way less likely to go to force or violence and considered it a failure if they ever had to use their guns.  

This book really stands the test of time.  It is an excellent read just for enjoyment if you are into the culture and work of street cops.  It could also be a solid reference for anyone writing about crime in that period. It is also an informed and intelligent look at police work in the 1980s and thus a valuable sociological text for those who study policing and how it has changed.  Seek it out.


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

71. A Multitude of Sins by M.K. Wren

I've been looking for the book A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren for quite some time.  I can't remember who recommended it to me.  It's a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi book.  When I was in Vancouver, I stumbled upon her name in the crime section with a couple of books featuring Oregonian detective Conan Flagg.  Normally, I wouldn't purchase a different book by the same author until I found the one I was looking for, but the combo of the Oregon coast location and the elite first name of the character allowed me to break protocol.

I read this much faster than the P.D. James I read previously.  These American detective fiction books are much easier to read, with fewer characters and a more straightforward through line as well as less complex prose.  So I burned through it, despite being really busy with work and personal bureaucracy.  I got caught up in it early, enjoying the intriguing setup and the cool and cultured detective.  He runs a book shop, of which we didn't get enough, and receives an anonymous note asking him to meet privately at the trail behind his beach house.  He is reluctant (and there is a suggestion that he was involved in things in his past that might still put him at risk) but concedes and meets the daughter of a recently deceased senator.  She is convinced that she is being followed and Flagg soon confirms that she is not actually paranoid, though there is a lingering question of her mental health.  

She plays the piano beautifully and that is enough to convince Flagg that she is worth protecting.  We are soon learn of her messed up family, or what is left of it: her charming frat boy party-hardy step-brother, her artist and now weird shut-in stepsister and her blind stepmom whom she hates.  It was an enjoyable read, but there was not much of a mystery and even the semi-twist at the end was pretty obvious to me.  I'm a dolt when it comes to figuring out mysteries, so I can only assume that Wren did not really care about hiding it and the pleasure was supposed to come from the action, which was okay.

So no masterpiece, but a nice digestible read.  Coincidentally, the day I finished the book, I went to Dark Carnival with the intention of only poking around, but the place has really been cleaned up and a lot of books that were buried under piles have become visible and lo and behold I found A Gift upon the Shore!  The book-finding Gods smile upon me.