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.  

Monday, September 25, 2023

70. The Black Tower by P.D. James

Hmm, so this is only the second P.D. James that I have read and the first with Adam Dalgliesh, who was her main character recurring detective.  As I started writing this, I thought this was one of the last in the series, as he is convalescing from some kind of illness and planning on retiring.  I see with a quick check that this is only the fifth of fourteen, so little harm done to a chronology nerd like myself.

In the Black Tower, he decides to go to the Dorset countryside to respond to the summons of an old family friend and colleague to his father (who had some religious role), the curate Father Badderley.  Upon arriving at Toynton Grange, a home for the disabled, he discovers that Father Badderley had died of a heart attack a week earlier.  It seems unsurprising as he was 80 but the fact of the letter (he had not heard from him since he was a child and referred to needing Dalgliesh's help as a police commander) and some odd inconsistencies (he was wearing his habit, which he should have take off and his last diary was missing) push Dalgliesh to ambivalently poke around.

Much of the book is an exploration of this strange place, led by a semi-messianic pseudo-monk who claims to have experienced a healing miracle from debilitating disease paralysis himself.  Even before any actual crime, there is much skulduggery amongst the patients and the staff.  Many of the people that work there have scandalous pasts (the doctor who had an affair with an underage girl, the ex-con orderly, the nurse who hit a patient) and are there working for cheap and lodgings because they couldn't get work anywhere else.  The patients themselves all have various tragic pasts and difficult personalities above and beyond their disabilities.  And of course, actual skulduggery is afoot, which goes beyond Father Badderley's suspicious death.  Previously, another patient whom everyone hated for his cruel went tumbling over a cliff edge into the sea, either due to suicide or because the brakes on his wheelchair failed.  

I actually had to resort to a piece of scrap paper with all the characters listed and it really helped a lot to get me engaged.  I struggled through at first, but once I hit page 100 and more or less had the characters in my head (these white people with the white people names, who can keep them apart?), I got quite intrigued.  It ended up being a bit too long and one grows tired of the weary resentment of post-colonial England (everybody is just so unhappy and narrow) but I definitely wanted to find out the solution.  The reveal is actually quite cool and satisfying and I imagine if you were already a fan of Dalgliesh you would have been quite psyched to know that it spurred him to get back into the game and abandon his retirement. 

I won't seek out her books, but it is good to know they are out there if my on deck shelf ever runs dry (ha!) and I need a good mystery.  She also had quite a tough life and basically wrote her way to incredible success in life.  Pretty impressive.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

69. Codes Bananas by David Walliams

For some reason, my daughter insisted that I read this book.  She plows through graphic novels and is a decent reader but so far hasn't seemed super enthusiastic about any books yet.  Her close friends, the twins, loved this book and gave it to her for her birthday.  It may be that she just doesn't express enthusiasm about things (she tends to be pretty stonefaced during movies), I just don't know.  I would have read this book in a day were it in english, but the twist is that she read it in french.  I can read french fairly well but it is is not unconscious for me as reading in english is and thus requires concentration.  So even a kids book like this is a real chore.  Furthermore the style of these books is to have all kinds of cartoony typefaces in different sizes that I just found kind of annoying (old man yelling at cloud here).  So this took me weeks to read!  

A corollary of having to read french consciously is that I also don't internalize the story.  It's all very removed.  So to be honest, I can't give this book a fair review.  It's a really fun adventure about a young boy in London during the blitz (orphaned by a Nazi bomb) who lives with his grandmother and has so far avoided being sent out to the country.  His uncle works as a guard at the zoo and his great joy is going there to be with the animals.  One night when he sneaks out to the zoo (after he is caught there by the asshole security guard and forbidden to come back by the pretentious and rigid zoo manager), his grandmother and her house are destroyed by another Nazi bomb, he is caught up in a wild adventure trying to save Gertrude the Gorilla.  It's quite wild and over the top, utterly unrealistic and I suspect a lot of fun.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

68. A Terrible Tide by Suzanne Mead

Books are being read slowly this fall here at Olman's Fifty.  I'm stuck on a French children's book my daughter aggressively pushed me to read and it's blocking all other reading progress.  I found A Terrible Tide at the Salvation Army in Langley (don't ask) and thought she might enjoy it (i.e learn from it, I've become the worst pushy Didactic Dad).  I am always trying to expose her to the concept of "Canada" as it gets more and more elusive in this global age.

A Terrible Tide is a fictional retelling of the real 1929 earthquake and tidal wave that hit Newfoundland and nearly destroyed many of the communities on the Burin peninsula.  I did not know about this event, nor did I even know about the Burin peninsula, so I was also educated!  At that time, the peninsula was not connected by land to the rest of the island.  People got around with boats, most of which were destroyed.  Furthermore, the one telegram/phone line had been downed in an earlier storm, so they also had no way to communicate.

The protagonist is Celia, the middle child of the X family.  It's her birthday and the dinner party gets rudely and brutally cut off as first the earthquake sends the family out of the house and then the tidal wave grabs her.  It's all quite adventurous with the bonus of an awesome dog (a Newfoundland of course) named Boomer.    The book is written at the young adult level, so fairly simple in its telling, yet with a lot going on.  I was caught up in it for the most part and I think my daughter was too (the clue is in the level of resistance beyond wanting to stay up when I say it's time to stop reading).  You really get a sense of how it must feel and what you have to deal with when your house is entirely destroyed and you have to decide whether to rebuild or to move and start again.  It also gives a nice perspective on a time and place where material goods were quite limited and pleasure comes from smaller, more important things like family and place.  This was a cool book.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

67. Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts (Might Marvel Masterworks vol. 9) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

A friend lent this to me.  He's a big fan of the silver age of comics.  I grew up on a lot of these comics, but always very sporadically.  You never had an entire series back then, just whatever copies you found at garage sales or got as gifts or your friends had (or their older brothers).  So it's cool to get an entire series in order, even if with Dr. Strange's first appearances there wasn't much of an overarching narrative.  He was introduced in 1963 and you can see how the comics are reflecting the earlier manifestations of the interest in psychedelia and the occult that were a big part of the 60s.  

The narratives are fairly simplistic.  Each issue has a new baddie (or a repeating one the indefatigable Baron Mordo) usually from another dimension who decides he has to dominate planet earth (and presumably the rest of our dimension, though they seem generally fixated on earth).  Strange discovers it and following his rigid duty to always protect earth and help those who need his help, he boldly jumps into some other dimension for a magic battle.  Usually, after being almost defeated, he whips out his magic amulet gifted to him by his mentor The Master.

The language and the depictions of the other dimensions are what make these stories entertaining.  I've never been clear on how much actual writing Stan Lee did.  The language here is that great, fantasy pseudo-classical language where the traditional sentence structure is inverted ("It is over! Never have I faced defeat so close!").  Also, the combatants narrate each of their attacks ("Now feel the fury of the electro plasma ray of Tiboro!")

I don't love Ditko's art, it's slightly too sketchy for me (I'm a solid line kind of guy), but his surrealist depictions of other dimensions and the battles therein are quite neat.  Lots of weird random doodles floating in emptiness.  I wonder how much Ditko and Kirby influenced each other?

Monday, August 28, 2023

66. Thank you, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

I picked this up and another Mr. Mot Bantam paperback from a nicely-curated antique store in Vancouver that had an interesting collection of paperbacks (chosen almost entirely for aesthetic reasons as the otherwise friendly owner had not actually read any of them and had never heard of Ross MacDonald!).  I was a bit desperate for good paperback finds at that point so justified to myself that I needed to read a Mr. Moto book or two.  I did find a nice paperback of Margaret Millar's An Air that Kills and a Mary Stewart (The Moon Spinners) that I hadn't read before.

Thank you, Mr. Moto was a strange read.  Marquand was a successful novelist; he even won a Pulitzer, so I want to give him his due as a writer. It's hard, though, to find any merit in this book beyond its existence as a very specific manifestation of I guess what is called Orientalism.  It's not that the bizarre mix of trying to be progressive (in the 1930s) by arguing that all Chinese people do not actually look alike while constantly marvelling at China's (and particularily Peking) fundamental unscrutability is so bad that I am morally condemming the book.  Rather, the characters and the plot are basically dull and mostly passive.  It's just a boring story in an environment, pre-WWII Peking with all the various colonial powers machinating, which should be anything but.

The protagonist is professional expat Tom Nelson who hasn't gone native but is too satisfied with his life of doing nothing in China.  He gets involved with another young single woman with a slight questionable reputation (comes from good stock, but is staying on too long in China without getting married or something) who had been at another expat's house the night he was murdered.  There is some mystery around his death but no real suspense.  It feels like the plot is an excuse for Marquand to go on and on about the mysterious Chinese character, on which despite the many words, he really doesn't say anything.  Did he even ever go to China?

You may be wondering, what the hell does this have to do with Mr. Moto?  He shows up early but is only tangentially involved in the plot that turns out to be an alliance of an extreme Japanese nationalist and a warlord who are plotting to take over Peking.  He indeed speaks in that stereotypical way where he is contstantly thanking and apologizing but somehow we are told he is also extremely effective.  The end of the book is a standoff with the warlord where the plucky woman grabs his gun and thus foils the plot.  Moto is there and talks a lot, but seems to do very little and what he does do is off screen.

I can live with some old school "benevolent" racism in my 20th century fiction.  I can critique it but still find value in the rest of the text.The problem with Thank you, Mr. Moto, is that there really isn't much going on with the rest of the text so the racism is the only thing that stands out. And even this is not very interesting.  I would welcome an ethnocentric discussion of Chinese culture from an expat living in Peking in the 30s if it brought something interesting to the table.  Marquand's portrayal here is simplistic and limited; it honestly feels like he just made it up based on whatever popular cuture on China he was exposed to.  I'll be hard-pressed to read the second one I bought.

Friday, August 18, 2023

65. Badlands by Robert Kroetsch

With this posting, I tread warily onto the badlands of CanLit.  I can't remember where I picked this book up, but it must have been in a free library back when my on-deck shelf was down to a third of its max size.  After my massive book haul in Vancouver, my on-deck shelf is now full of books I want to read and so books I should read are much less tempting.  I debated putting this book down as it took me a few days to get into it.  After the awesomeness that was The Heights of Zervos, I was reluctant to start a new book.  I persevered and pushed through, the Macomber of boring books.

That's not actually fair to Badlands, which isn't boring.  It's actually kind of fun and weird, with an absorbing, vibrant portrayal of the Alberta Badlands and the river that runs through it.  Unfortunately, because this is "literature", we have to get an elaborate structure, forced themes and stylized language.  The main story is about Dawes, an obsessive explorer who has left his wife at home to hunt for dinosaur bones in the Alberta Badlands.  He is in competition with two other well-known bone collectors.  With him, on an enormous raft with their supplies and a made tent (when things are stable), are Web the steersman, Grizzly the cook and McBride (who bales and is later replaced by Tune, the boy rescued from playing piano in a "hoo-er" house).  All of them are strange individuals, communication is limited and seems mainly to release the various tensions among the men.  They get into various scrapes and interactions, many of which are entertaining (like when the raft goes through the rapids) or interesting (the various ferries and the photographer).  None of these interactions ever go truly crazy (I think this is what marks it as Canadian), though all are marked with eccentric behaviours and the language weighted with excess language and symbolism.

That narrative is further framed by I guess journal entries by Anna Dawes, the explorer's daughter, 56 years later.  She gives interprets what he wrote in his journal and laments his absence from their lives.  She ends up meeting Anna Yellowbird, the I guess Blackfoot woman, who follows and eventually joins Dawes' expedition (and of course has sex with Dawes and maybe with Web*) after her husband never returned home from WWI.  The two Annas attempt to drunkenly trace the raft's route backwards and I guess discover things about themselves.

Once I got into it, Badlands was a mostly fun read.  I enjoyed the portrayal of the zany raft crew and the detailed exposition of their work and interactions.  Likewise, the description of the environment made me seriously consider taking a trip there.  There is a dinosaur museum and I imagine great hiking.  

Unfortunately, the goodness of those things were somewhat buried under the forced "literature" elements like a well-made cake under too much cheap icing.  There are enough themes embedded here to fill 2-3 undergrad lit seminar sessions and yet none of them end up saying all that much.  Something about masculinity, yes a lot about masculinity of course, maybe something about Canada as a nation, buried dinosaur bones as metaphor of something or other, etc. The language is stilted and weirdly stylized. He uses a device where he says the subjects name in two sentences in a row, which I guess is supposed to be deep but just made it confusing as to whose point of view it was when he didn't use the name.  

You can see I wasn't exaggerating!

I'm glad I read it and Kroetsch had an esteemed career and seemed like a decent guy, so happy to have read it but now I am very much ready to get back into some straight-ahead story and ass-kicking.

*This edition was published by PaperJacks which seems kind of cool, though you can see where creative Canada was in 1975 by the books listed there, with references to Tonto, use of the word "Eskimo" and at least one book whose main point seems to be sex between a First Nations woman and a white man.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

64. The Heights of Zervos by Colin Forbes

I honestly bought this book because it was a Pan with a pretty cool layout.  I don't even like the image on the cover that much. Sometimes I'll pick up a book that I'm not super sure about either because I feel it needs rescuing, or because I don't want to spend all this time browsing and then not even purchase anything and finally because I need my book-buying fix.

Well in this case, the hesitant purchase turned out to be a big winner because this book was awesome.  It's probably one of the best adventure books I've read in a while, rivaling Desmond Bagley.  Though a huge student of WWII, I tend to not love adventure books that take place then as I am not a big fan of military fiction.  I also was worried it was going to be all winter.  What made this book so great, was that it has so much going on.  We get great espionage and sabotage, as well as a whole section on a Greek ferry that could be right out of Eric Ambler, before we even get to the main adventure, which is a race by a three Brits and a Greek to beat a battalion of elite German Alpenkorps to a monastery on a mountain peak that will give them a huge tactical advantage in their invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia.

The whole second half is alternately tense and hair-raising.  It culminates in a wild, explosive finale.  I'm being vague here because I don't want to give anything away.  The protagonist, Macomber, is kind of a British soldier superman, though of course with zero self-promotion.  Just a competent public school boy who kicked around Europe as a kid so perfectly fluent in Greek, French and German (the latter allowing him to march around the boat in the guise of an Abwher agent, flustering his supposed Nazi colleagues with constant criticisms and unsettling questions).  I love lines like this, when Macomber explains how when in Bulgaria the British government tapped him to do sabotage jobs on Nazi stockpiles in the Balkans:

"It was lying around in warehouses and railway sidings, so the Ministry brainboxes said would I have a go at it?  Very obliging they were too — sent out an explosives man to teach me a trick or two about things that go bang in the night..."

One simply does one's duty, what?  A great read and a keeper.  Colin Forbes is going to the top of the list.


Monday, August 07, 2023

63. Iran: a Modern History by Abbas Amanat

My best friend is Iranian and his father recommended this book as a "pretty good history" of modern Iran.  He does not praise lightly!  Starting in 1500 and going right up to the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Green Revolution of 2009, it answered all the big picture questions I had about Iran as well as filling in some significant gaps in the surrounding region.  It does so in a readable, yet still scholarly style, so I found it to be quite a page-turner actually.

My biggest question was how Iran/Persia remained a coherent nation (or maybe became one) with distinct language and religion from the rest of the middle east.  In answering this question, Amanat also really helped me understand the distinction between Shi'i and Sunni Islam (though I still don't know the origin of the split as that happened before 1500 I guess).  I also wanted to know better England's role in Iran's history.  I hadn't realized that Iran was never actually colonized, though it got pretty damn close.  

It's hard to write about a 900+ page book covering 600 years of history.  My big takeaways are that Iran is an amazing country with a rich and complex culture.  A lot of bad shit went down there (I thought the second Shah Pahlavi was bad then Khomeini is like hold my beer) and much of today's Iran is found in the diaspora after the Islamic Revolution.  It makes you wish that it can find a way to one day move to a more pluralistic society not dependent on autocracy and repression to grow.  It seems so often that despite changes in ideology, countries' basic structure of government seems to often adhere to their pre-modern roots.  Russia had czars and now they have a "President".  China had emperors and now Chairmen.  Iran had Shahs and now an Ayatollah.  Very hard to say what could shake that.  Another point is that Iran was never not fucked with by external forces.  At its borders, the Russians were up to constant fuckery, the Ottaman empire and then Iraq (to be fair this was more of a back and forth) and of course the British basically taking over all of Iran's oil.  Amanat is quite fair, though, in laying responsibility for Iran's mistakes equally at Iran itself as well as the outside forces.  He also gives credit for various government managing to maintain the slimmest Iranian polity when it seemed like the country was going to be split in half or uttery dominated.

Coincidentally, as I was in Vancouver finishing the book, there was a Parviz Tanavoli exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Amanat spends a page or two on him and his contribution to Iranian modern art.  The exhibit was fantastic, adding depth to my reading.  Tanavoli captures a lot of history in his work, many of his pieces look like modernity enclosing traditional Persian forms and motifs while those forms and motifs resist back making a dynamic that felt like I was looking at the tension of Iran in a single statue.  Cool stuff.

Finally, I have to make a point about eurocentrism.  Earlier this year, I finished J.M. Roberts' Penguin History of the World, which I quite liked.  Roberts makes the argument that because Europe dominated most of the world through colonization and its political forms that the lens of world history should focus on Europe.  I don't entirely disagree with that article, but now that I have read this history of Iran, I see how much basic history of this region was missing from Robert's book.  Even if a region didn't have impact on the world (which is questionable, especially today), you still have to get its history into a history of the world.  I learned more about the history of India, the Arab world, Afghanistan and even Russia from Amanat's work in his tangential backgrounds to those regions connections with Iran.

Here are some photos I took of Tanavoli's work.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

62. Vancouver Vice: Crime and Spectacle in the City's West End by Aaron Chapman

My wife picked this one up while we were in Vancouver.  She went to film school with the author who seems to have become a succesful "alternative" journalist, with several books on Vancouver history.  I was about halfway through the 900 page tome on Iranian history and picked this one up at first just to check it out, but it was so readable and interesting that I ended up reading the entire book overnight.

Vancouver Vice is the history of the West End of Vancouver in the late '70s and early '80s, specifically the development of the gay community there and the sex trade that flourished during that time.  We moved to Vancouver Island in 1980 and I didn't really become conscious of Vancouver until a few years later, so I missed the peak of this period, though certainly saw the seediness and crime on Davies and Granville in my teenage years.  My grandfather lived in the West End  and he and his brother who lived with him must have seen all of this.

The book is well-written, very easy and entertaining to read.  It is also thoroughly researched.  Much of the history is now lost, or at least not easily accessible or even part of the common knowledge of the region. Vancouver has a long history of its culture of stiff gentility trying to stifle its pockets of extreme vice.  Today, the really bad neighbourhoods are down on the east side and characterized by homelessness, mental health issues and addiction.  This book captures a time that would probably seem even more shocking to today's younger Vancouverites, where open prostitution of both sexes lined the streets of the West End.  The barriers and blocked streets that make it such a pain in the ass to drive were pu there not to help bikes and make calmer streets for the residences but to make it hard for Johns to drive and solicit sex workers.

Vancouver Vice is framed by a body being found in the trunk of a car left abandoned in Stanley Park.  We then get background on the establishment of the West End as a safe space for gay men, a look into the hot clubs and establishments and interviews with cops and locals as well as some sex workers who were there at the time.  The treatment of the police is quite interesting, they are portrayed in a favourable light and seem like decent guys who had a kind of rock and roll job.  I'm not sure the people they busted for hooking up in the English Bay bathrooms or for buying or selling weed (both activities now legal) felt about them.  Their motivation, they say, was really to go after the abusers and people who preyed on underage kids.

Ultimately, the laws of the time reflected the will of the general public but were also limited by the power elite of the province.  The only name we get is the successful founder of the U-Frame it business, but there is a lot of evidence suggesting many other wealthy and powerful people were participating in sex and drug parties with underage sex workers, who had been exploited by the lower level criminals, particularly the scary Wayne Harris. 

You can buy the book here.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

61. Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson

My daughter is a big fan of the Moomins. She has read all the comics in these beautiful hardcover editions her mother got for her.  I didn't grow up with them and had never heard about them. They are cool and weird.  I've only read part of the comics.  She chose this book as the next one to read aloud at bedtime.  I had no idea what to expect but I was pleased from the outset to find a neat little map inside the book.

We just finished it tonight and I'm still not sure what to make of it.  The story follows several eccentric characters who have all decided to go to Moominvalley to visit the Moomin family, with whom each has or thinks they have some kind of relationship.  But when they get there, the Moomins are gone, seemingly on their own vacation.  So all these characters end up stuck together in this neat little valley as summer ends and winter comes on.  There is Fillyjonk, a female aardvark thing who obsesses about cleaning or not cleaning and turns out to be a really good cook.  There is Toft this strange little boy who lives in a boat on land.  Snufkin who opens and closes the book and seems to be the closest to the Moomins is somebody with a hat and an imagination and there is The Hemulen who seems to be a sort of stuffy older fellow, who felt kind of British.  

They have their interactions, sometimes verging on conflicts but more like a lot of strange eccentrics doing their own thing and not really tripping too much off of each other, all of them waiting for the Moomins.  It's very soothing and pleasant.  Sometimes I would drift off while reading aloud and have to force myself to concentrate.  My daughter listened, absorbed most of the time.  She knew most of the characters from the comic, so I think that helped.  She was a bit surprised by the ending, asking "isn't there an epilogue or something?"

Strange, Nordic stuff but I'm not against it.

60. The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross MacDonald

I've now come all the way around with Ross MacDonald.  He may have moved to the top of my detective fiction rankings after reading the Zebra-Striped Hearse.  This is the fourth or fifth book of his that I have read in the 50 Books era and they just keep getting better and better.  It's really the detecting that gets me and this one has a lot of it, but then the intricate and tightly-structured plot that keeps revealing more and more and finally the real darkness at the end that brings to near-masterpiece level for me.

Archer is almost a cypher in this one, though with several great quips and observations along the way.  He starts here with a request from an angry old man to investigate the beau of his rebellious daughter (well a request preceded by the angry old man's wife, which anticipates the complexity of the case to come).  The daughter, who is 24 and will inherit her aunt's millions when she turns 25, has run off to Mexico and met an old, attractive artist/bum and threatens to marry him.  It begins with a pretty straightforward effort to find out the true identity of the artist.  An envelope found in the beach house where the couple was hiding away suggests that the man came across the border using an alias.  Archer hops it to Mexico and things start to get complex.  I'm going to stop there with the plot, because the unraveling is a big part of the pleasure.  I did find it a bit confusing about two-thirds of the way in, but it's all so carefully built that it comes back together again (and boy does it!) by the end.

What I love about MacDonald is that there is a ton of real investigating.  This book is quite procedural.  I just love scenes of the detective talking to various characters, getting past their defenses and getting the info he needs to go to the next character.  Nobody does it better in my reading experience so far than MacDonald in these Archer books.  Each encounter is also an opportunity to expose a little bit of mid-20th century America, especially California.  The locations (expat artist town in Mexico, seedy Reno hotel apartment, Malibu beach houses) and the weirdos that live there (struggling bar owner, cute girl who goes on dates for slot machine money, drunken mom with wayward son) are each finely crafted and in the aggregate open up to the reader a fading, changing America.

I'm not going to say this book is super deep, but the title reveals a richer sub-text.  The hearse in question is the vehicle of a gang of surfer kids whose role is only incidental to the plot but thematically quite central.  It's about wayward children, the separation from their parents and the anger towards them, anger that comes out of trauma and just change.  The Zebra-Striped Hearse was written in 1962 and California feels decaying.  The 60s are coming and MacDonald makes you feel it in the wind.  I know too that Macdonald and Millar had their own wayward daughter with her own tragic end (and their own responsibility) so may surmise that is what he is writing about here.

It does get very dark in the end.  Characters that we thought were bad are much, much worse.  What I particularly appreciated is that the complex plot once you know the whole story is not that complex at all. It's just that everybody lying and hiding and Archer coming into it backwards makes the unravelling complex, which is the pleasure of the mystery.  Great book.  I haven't gone back and checked thoroughly but this is up there for one of the top books in 2023.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, there is a great little interchange near the end where Archer interacts with an early sci-fi nerd "a fat man with a frowzy unwed aura".  LOL!  He clearly did not approve:

Sunday, July 23, 2023

59. Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald

Wow, an absolute banger!  I had been putting this one off for a long time.  It is the last of the Ed Gorman recommended JdM's so I was saving it.  Also, as I've expressed in my previous reviews, I had been growing somewhat weary of MacDonald's style, especially his sometimes convoluted sexual mores.  I gave in because I just needed a pallette cleanser and something hard and direct after some of the longer books I've been struggling through.  Well I am very pleased to report that this was absolutely great, one of my favourite JdM's (after Condominium, which I can consider a classic now that my sister loved it; interestingly also centered around a hurrican).

Because of the title and the way it began, I thought we were going to get more of a crime story.  The first chapter is a description of the growing storm.  These are the kinds of near-thrilling paragraphs  that MacDonald excels at, grabbing you with the captain of a freighter in the Caribean looking at the water and recognizing the signs, then zooming out to the geography and science of a growing hurricane.  We move to the human scale next, in classic JdM manner, with a neat structure of various cars passing each other on the highway heading North on the Gulf side of Florida.  As each car passes another, we get a chapter about that person's background: the family with the defeated father who are moving back north after failing to make it in Florida; the aggressive businessman with his belittled business partner, the widow with the ashes of her manic-depress husband who had recently killed himself, the failed tennis pro and his heiress bride, the two escaped cons and their cow-like girl in tow and finally the hard as nails fed who has finally found the last spy of the cell that blew up his wife.  

There are a lot of characters!  I thought we were going to have a book mainly focused around the tensions and conflict of these characters trapped somewhere in the storm, but as they only finally get stuck together well past the halfway mark, I realized it was more of a troupe story with the storm and its destruction as the main conflict.  Fine by me.  MacDonald keeps them clear for the reader and I only once or twice had to refer back to remind myself which was which.  It's a short, efficient book and he satisfies all their narrative arcs with an extremely moving romantic storyline as well.  This really is a tight, fun read.  He gives you everything you want with both the characters and the physical action of the storm.  That shit seems really terrifying!  It's not in depth but for instance, he spends a gleeful two pages describing the wealthy people's waterfront properties and how the storm first destroys their sea walls and then the houses themselves.  Thoroughly enjoyable, though honestly at one point, given how we are accelerating these disasters with our addiction to empty fossil-fuel driven consumption and you don't have to be in Florida or on the coast to have your life destroyed, I did have moments of real father anxiety while reading.

Dark fucking times, but on a Fifty Books note my project of reading all the Ed Gorman recommended non-Travis McGee books ended perfectly.

The part about the fish got my hyped.  JdM so good.


Monday, July 17, 2023

58. Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins

I discovered this at Drawn & Quarterly.  I'm ideologically opposed to trade paperbacks but this design by Seth definitely caught my eye and I'll make an exception for books that would be impossible to find in a traditional paperback format.  It is a truly interesting historical document, though the reading of the first two-thirds is quite slow going.  It picks up in the end in a sudden frenzy of narrative and plot craziness but I can't recommend it if you are looking for thrills.  

It's the story of a young doctor, Reuel Briggs, extremely good-looking, smart and conscientious but brooding, his soul weighted down by something.  It really takes us a long time to get anywhere, but we learn that he is well-liked and respected by his peers, but poor because he dabbles in only obscure sciences, including paranormal studies. He is entranced by Dianthe the lead singer of an African-American (the word "Negro" is used in the text) show as he had seen her in previous visions.  Soon after she dies in a train accident, but he realizes that as her body is not damaged she isn't truly dead and can be revived using some of the skills he has been studying.  He succeeds in bringing her back, but much of her memory is gone, including the knowledge that she herself is black.  This was the age of "passing" and we also soon learn that the protagonist himself is also black.  

We are already halfway through the book at this point and nobody has even mentioned going to search for a lost civilization in Africa, as we were promised on the back cover.  The story was originally serialized in in 1903 in The Colored American Magazine of which Hopkins was the editor. You can see how reading it as the issues came out would have made fora more satisfying read, as the writing has a lyrical quality and there are interesting ideas, especially about race (hints and suggestions at first but much more explicit near the end).  However, in book form, it feels very meandering and the reader does not always feel on sure footing.  I think much of that is also due to the style of the times in which it was written, with references to Milton and abrupt jumps in location and changes of pace.

Eventually we get to a love triangle, as Briggs' close friend and sponsor Aubrey Livingston, scion of a wealthy, white previously slave-owning family falls for Dianthe and tricks Briggs into going off on an expedition to Africa.  Once Briggs is out of the way, Livingston arranges a canoe accident where his fiance drowns and at first we think he and Dianthe also drown but instead he makes it shore and squirrels her away.  From here things get quite gothic and crazy.  Dianthe dies at least 3 times.  There is a real muddying of contemporary ethics (she feels super guilty about being married twice) and racial issues. I get the feeling that Hopkins had to rush the conclusion.

I'm glad I read it for several reasons. It's a seminal piece of science fiction that I had not known about. The racial issues are fascinating, both to see how they are treated in the behaviour in the book (seems like 1903 was weirdly less racist then today in some social ways, yet clearly super duper racist) as well as some of the foundations of ideas that are prevalent in later black crime fiction in the second half of the twentieth century.

This is part of MIT Press's Radium Age book series, celebrating early science fiction that bridges the classics of the 19th century and the big boom that we call the Golden Age in the second half of the 20th.  It has an aggressive and informative forward by Minister Faust which helped put a lot of the African mythology in the book in context.

Pauline Hopkins was a badass and
yet sadly neglected by history.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

57. Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell is one of the grande dames of British crime fiction and I have had her on the non-urgent hunting list for a while.  I've been trying to make regular visits to scour S.W. Welch's in its final days and noticed quite a few Rendells in the thinning mystery shelf.  I quickly googled "best Ruth Rendell" and got this one so I bought it.  Time period, cover design and page count all looked right up my alley so this got bumped my priority list for a long weekend vacation trip the Eastern Townships.

Unfortunately, it begins with two potential strikes against it for me.  First the crime and the culprit are revealed in the opening paragraph.  She implies that there is still a mystery about what led up to the crime and how it was solved afterwards, but this made me worried that what I was going to read was more of a horror story then a detective story, which turned out to be true.  An upper middle-class family of four is shot to death in their home by their live-in maid.  

The second strike which is also laid out in the opening pages is that the maid, Eunice Parcherson, is illiterate and this was the motive behind the murders.  I can imagine that illiteracy is an incredibly powerful social stigma (and even those words feel like I am putting it lightly).  I am pretty ignorant about how illiteracy would impact somebody socially and I am hoping that Rendell did her research before making it the defining characteristic and drive for a brutal murder.  I don't feel like I really learned any more about it from this book.  The idea is that this working class woman not only isolated herself socially because she couldn't read, but that her illiteracy actually deadened her feelings and sensitivity to the human world.  While she does have heightened memory and quick practical learning skills, she has never learned empathy or the basics of emotional human interaction. Ultimately, it is even suggested that Eunice is not even human but an atavistic, pre-human creature.  This just strikes me as utterly false.  I would imagine that illiteracy might even heighten the emotional senses as you have to rely on so many non-written clues to get around in the world.  

The construction of the Eunice character also feels deeply classist and biased, as the implication here is that lack of education (of which not being able to read is the most extreme form) is what creates the monster.  To be fair, Rendell is quite ruthless with almost all her characters and she is equally nasty about the well-educated, pretentious and un-self-aware family.  One gets a sense, nevertheless, that Rendell would not trust anybody who doesn't love a library.

So as I sense from the beginning, Judgement in Stone is really a horror story about a family unknowingly trapped in their home by a sociopathic illiterate whose flaw will drive her to homicidal mania.  Reminiscent of In Cold Blood, the trigger that will transform Eunice from a cold, removed repellent presence who is kept on because of the excellence of her house work into a homicidal maniac is her friendship with town gossip and religious maniac Joan Smith.  This latter character who starts out quite rich also ends up being somewhat simplistic, basically just going insane in the end.

I'm spending a lot of time critiquing the premise.  The actual execution is quite well done.  The portrayal of the family and the town is extremely well done so that the reader is quite able to sense the environment both physical and social and really know and quite sympathize with the family (especially the two children).  Rendell expertly expels any illusions one might have about moving to the English countryside. The town is dominated by the worst kind of British social constraints and a rapid and condemning gossip network.  I grew up with a watered-down version of this on Vancouver Island in the 80s where there were a lot of middle-class British expats and it's just the worst.

I'm just not a fan of horror. I have enough low-level anxiety and dread in my own imagination that I don't enjoy reading about it all.  But if that is your thing as it is for many, I can see how enjoyable this book would be. The idea of having the live-in help who does a really excellent job (it is a big house and Eunice's labour turns it from a deteriorating, stress-creating environment for the wife to the ideal aristocratic household) but makes you at first vaguely uncomfortable and then more and more creeped out until finally the masters are psychologically beholden to the servant is a really great one touching on so many social issues.  It's deeply uncomfortable and the tension and dread increase until the almost mild but psychologically explosive pre-climax (before the actual violence) when Eunice's greatest fear of having her illiteracy exposed happens.

I can understand the critical praise the book gets, just know you are not getting a mystery but a social horror/crime novel.  I do feel the portrayal of the antagonists is still simplistic enough that it deserves some critique even for fans of those genres.

Postscript:  I just learned that Rendell has an entirely separate series of straight-up detective books starring Inspector Reginald Wexford.  Those are what I should probably be looking for.


Tuesday, July 04, 2023

56. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Another pick-up from S.W. Welch's last days, I thought that I had already read this, but once I was about a third of the way through I realized it was new to me.  I kind of messed myself up by stopping reading Gibson and then picking up books at random much later.  I would have rather read them in order, simply to keep track of which ones I've read.  All his post sci-fi books that I have read have been really good, but their narratives are not clearly delineated nor easily remembered with time (they tend to be cool girl and other neat characters are trying to find something that they don't know what it is). His books are grouped into trilogies but not because of a narrative through line but just shared time and place and some characters.  Now that I have "rediscovered" Gibson and enjoy his later books, I have them on my hunting list and am going to try and read them in order.

Pattern Recognition is Gibson's 9/11 novel. The story goes that he was almost finished with it when the planes hit and was going to abandon it when his editor convinced him to re-write it to incorporate the new world.  I resist the idea that "9/11 changed everything" because it is so annoyingly American and self-centered, but two decades later, I can see that there is a lot of validity to it.  Pattern Recognition puts 9/11 in the back story, the protagonist's father who worked for the CIA but had retired, disappeared on that day after checking out from a hotel in lower Manhattan.  The main plot is about her working as a consultant for an elite advertising/marketing agency called Blue Ant and its powerful, charismatic, manipulative and morally ambiguous Belgian boss named Bigend.  She has a unique skill/flaw in that she is allergic to branding and logos and can sniff out a logo that will work or not.  On the side, her main interest is investigating these mysterious snippets of video that are being released to the internet. She is a big part of the internet community (online forums at this stage) that is obsessed with these videos.  The story takes off when Bigend hires her to continue her personal investigation into these video snippets in a professional capacity.

There is a lot going on here.  Gibson explores early internet culture, as well as fashion and street style (one of the characters is a "cool hunter" another a guerrilla marketer hired to be cool and hot and drop references to certain products to men she meets in bars).  The roads slowly lead back to Russia and we get a lot of exploration into post-Soviet collapse and the growth of oligarchs.  It's a testimony to Gibson's vision and style that none of this feels dated.  The content is, but he frames it from an objective stance that both gives you a slice of what was going on then as well as demonstrating how these things laid the foundation for the excessive versions with which we are living in the 2020's.

There is also a real aspirational, wish-fulfillment element in these books that I really enjoy.  They are corporate fantasies, where the protagonist gets the coolest freelance gig ever.  She never has to deal with any administrative or grunt work.  Has access to first-class flights, boutique hotel rooms, limo pickups and elite restaurants where the tab is paid all with a quick phone call to a person whose job is to immediately get you anything you need, including visas, passports, etc.  Her challenges are internal (should she expose her personal and artistic interest in these video snippets to her corporate boss who wants to exploit it for marketing clout?) and political (why does the icy Italian VP seem to want to fuck with her and what should she do about it?).

The goals are ambitious and somehow Gibson wraps it up in a rich, satisfying way.  This is the first book of the so-called Blue Ant trilogy and I've already read the second, so the next on my list is.

Monday, June 26, 2023

55. Intrigue by Desmond Cory

Sadly, S.W. Welch is closing up shop.  It's one of the last English language used book stores in Montreal who narrowly dodged a shitrat developer rent increase thanks to public protest.  Now, the owner (Mr. Welch himself) says that there will be another increase, not as drastic but still too high, when his lease ends so he is taking this as a good time to retire and I guess they couldn't find another owner.  The stock had remained pretty stale in the last few years but I loved browsing there and still found good books from time to time.   It's a sad loss, but at least feels to me more like one due to time rather than the greed and corruption that dominates this province.

Everything is half-off and because it pains me to see books not go to a good home I've been poking in here and picking up books I may not otherwise have bought.  Thus this nice Johnny Fedora hardcover, about which I have always been curious.  Based on this one, it will probably be my first and last Desmond Cory. It's not terrible, but sort of generic, seeming to rest on its Britishness more than any actual exciting storytelling or adventure.  The fight scenes were quite rigorous and fun but overall the whole thing felt slight and rote.  It does not have much "Intrigue" that's for sure.  The region also was kind of interesting, as it takes place in Trieste during the early years of the Cold War, which I guess was not part of Italy back then.  I'm not really sure.

The story involves the British holding some master spy who won't tell them anything but they know he has planned some big plot.  It's up to the protagonist to figure it out by going to Trieste and investigating.  He hires/pressures Johnny Fedora and the two of them get involved in sneaking into places, finding and befriending/interrogating a beautiful woman.  It feels like watered down, less rich and well-written Eric Ambler (though with more fight scenes).

It's not terrible by any means and if you were desperate for some decent 20th Century British espionage and sleuthing, this would assuage your thirst.  He clearly has his fans and the official Desmond Cory website is an excellent reference source.


Sunday, June 18, 2023

54. Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb (book 3 of the Tawny Man, trilogy 3 of the Elderlings Saga)

actually bought this new!
Phew!  Now this was a nerdy fantasy tome!  I'm quite proud of myself now over halfway through the 16 book Realm of the Elderling series and especially for getting through this 900+ page beast.  Overall, I will say that I really enjoyed reading this trilogy.  I didn't quite do it straight through, but read the 2nd and 3rd back to back which I realize now as a bit too intense.  I think for me there is a nice middle ground where I read series or trilogy books in order and without waiting too long that I forget the plot details but can also read a very different book or two in between.  The richness and depth of both the narrative and the world (and especially its history) make it well worth getting deep into the series.  It was not effortless, though, as getting through certain parts made me feel like Fitz when he was dragging Thick behind him in the snow.

 I will limit my critiques here as both the things I didn't like and the things I liked in the first two books were more or less the same here. I did, though, have one major issue which really slowed down my reading of this.  The entire first two-thirds of this book is predicated on a clearly stupid and erroneous quest to slay the dragon.  Obviously, the Narcheska and her uncle were under external pressure and pretty obviously this was the white witch.  Chade and Dutiful and Fitz all seemed uncharacteristically stupid in continuing stubbornly to try and kill the dragon when all they had to do was have a bit more communication with the Outislanders and just go after the White Witch.  This drove me crazy and made me only able to read a few pages at a time.  Not as big a deal, but likewise Fitz stupidly jumping through the portal stones after everybody warned him multiple times about how dangerous they were was totally uncharacteristic for the same person who is super conservative about any skill use or training. It just didn't ring true and only seemed like a justification to create a delay in his return.

I will say, though, that as usual Robin Hobb has the last word as she has an in-book magical reason that explains why FitzChivalry was such a whiny bitch for the bulk of the trilogy:  when he had dumped his traumatic memories of torture and abandonment into the stone dragon at the end of the first trilogy, he had also lost something of his spirit and the strength to push himself.  This leads me to discuss some of the themes that she explores in this series.

The main background theme here (main in the sense that it is driving the ultimate conflict going on between the White Witch and the Fool) is interestingly environmental.  Ultimately, the White Witch wants to push events so that dragons are destroyed and humanity dominates the land, though why she wants to do this is never clearly explained beyond her broad hatred of anything beautiful (as demonstrated in her vandalizing the Elderlings under-ice city).  So basically humans dominating = evil.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next seven books.

The other main theme is trauma and trauma recovery. Fitz is deeply damaged and is a child (and young man) of abuse.  Though I feel that it goes too far in pushing his terrible decision-making, it ultimately does make thematic sense and does make you feel deeply happy for him when things finally work out. Hobb was somewhat ahead of the times with addressing trauma so deeply in a fantasy epic a good decade before it became all the rage in every genre. Like all great fantasy and sci-fi authors, she uses cool fantasy stuff like Skilling magic as a metaphor for very real issues of our time.

Finally, though it is not addressed too deeply, I was struck by a great comment when Dutiful accuses Fitz of using his wolf side when he wants to get aggressive and go all loner and ass-kicked and Fitz corrects him and says that the real Wolf side of him would have shown his strength by defending the pack, teaching and caring for the young ones.  The loner violence is the human side.  This was a nice little stick in the eye to all these loser fake-ass alpha male douchenozzles who are making money scamming sad boys on the internet today.

There are several other themes (addiction) in this series.  I suspect that part of the reason I enjoy them so much is not just the great writing, characters and setting but also that I am probably roughly politically aligned with Hobb.  Also just shout-out to her for being a badass writer, cranking out books while raising 4 kids on a husband's commercial fisherman's salary.  I presume she has bank and comfort now and it was well earned.  I'll take a longish break before getting into the next quartet, but am quite looking forward to it as it is back to the River Wilds and the dragons and hopefully a lot less whining and self-doubt.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

53. Golden Fool by Robin Hobb (book 2 of the Tawny Man, trilogy 3 of the Elderlings Saga)

So now we conclude book 2 in the ongoing adventures of Mr. Jump to Conclusions always in the worst possible way man.  Oh my god, I seriously considered whether I would be able to finish this one in the middle.  The setting in incredible, rich and evocative.  The plotlines are multi-layered and intriguing.  The magic system is well thought out and keeps revealing more.  I want to find out what happens.  But argh the protagonist sucks!  I still can't tell if Hobb is doing this on purpose or if she doesn't get that we don't need his constant misinterpretation and extreme pessimism to drive the book forward.  Almost every thing that happens, he takes it in the worst possible way.  He is also often quite stupid (like no shit the Outislanders young queen's servant woman is obviously an avatar for the evil White Prophet).  

But not only is he always misunderstanding everything to an extreme, he is also kind of an asshole.  He is super prude about sex in a way that nobody else around him seems to be.  Two different women want to have regular sex with him with no strings attached but niceness and not only does he have to reject them, he has to do it in the most assholish way guaranteed to piss them off (and unfairly).  And then to make matters worse, he is also a homophobe!  His best friend, who may not even be a human and can switch identities and genders and peels his skin like a snake every year, is in love with him.  When he pushes the friend to admit this, he then shuns him and is all angry.  Like WTF?!  Yes, this can be awkward, but anger?  Just maddening.  He spends the entire book shunning his biological daughter because he is so convinced that if he shows himself to be alive, her adopted dad will be destroyed?  The same person who is devastated and blames himself for his death?  Make it make sense.  

And the final thing that is really bugging me is that he acts like he has to make this tough choice whether or not to support Prince Dutiful in his quest to kill the dragon.  He frames it like this terrible choice between supporting the Fool and saving the dragon so they can mate and dragons can come back which duh everybody wants and would be good for the world or killing the dragon because his prince took up a challenge from his bride which she was obviously forced by the evil white prophet to make.  Obviously, you save the dragon and try to free the Outislanders from the white prophet's coercion.

The thing is despite these frustrations, Hobb always manages to pull it back by the end.  There is some redemption and positive developments in FitzChivalry's whiney life and more importantly, the storylines are gripping and conclude in exciting and satisfying ways.  The brutal fight scene where the Piebald leader and his supporters get their just desert is intense, brutal and extremely satisfying (though still we have to have Fitz get all resentful because he got left in jail afterwards and feeling abandoned when it obviously was the right thing to do and he was better protected because of it).  The negotiations with the mixed representatives of the Old Blood is equally satisfying and almost promising, with the bonus that the young prince shows some character as well.

I am surging on to the last book in the trilogy and then can move back to the Rain Wilds where there are also some annoying characters, but a nice mix and done I hope in third person so I don't have to hear their thoughts.

Monday, May 22, 2023

52. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

I found this on my parents' bookshelf.  My mom didn't seem to know about it so I don't actually know where it came from, but I'm glad it was there.  Turns out Diary of a Nobody is a major influence on english literature in two streams: the fictional diary format and the sympathetic mockery of the growing lower-middle class in Edwardian (and later) England.

The diary is written by Mr. Pooter, a married clerk living in the suburbs outside of London who strives to be proper and uphold Victorian class ideals and esthetics.  He is hilariously prim and un-self-aware.  He is also always constantly injuring himself in minor slapstick accidents, like banging his head on the window when pulling it in quickly because he thinks a gentleman is arriving at his house and wants to ensure the maid answers the door. He narrates in detail his petty conflicts with tradespeople as well as his sycophantic love for his boss, the gentleman Mr. Perkupp.  Though he is the object of much scorn by many of his fellows and the book is poking fun at him, none of it is mean-spirited.  The writers clearly have a real sympathy for him and it makes the book funny and endearing.  He and his wife Carrie have a very good and loving marriage and that is never attacked or mocked.

As it was initially a series of entries in Punch and expanded when published as a single book, it's not a full narrative, although there are a few narrative threads that run through it.  The biggest is Lupin, their wayward son and whether or not he'll get a job.  He falls in with the bad influence of a theatre troupe. It is a light and quick read, highly enjoyable for those who have an understanding of British culture, possibly mostly impenetrable for those who don't.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

51. Fools Errand by Robin Hobb (book 1 of the Tawny Man, trilogy 3 of the Elderlings Saga)

Jumping back into the Realm of the Elderlings saga, I started the third trilogy (and the second Farseer) with Fools Errand.  I did a bit of wikipedia reading on the first Farseer trilogy to catch back up and Hobb spends a good chunk of this first book with Fitz recalling the past events, so it wasn't too difficult to get reintegrated.  Fitz is now a hermit woodsman, living with hit Witted wolf Nighteyes and his adopted son Hap in a small cabin and existing off the land.  He is of course full of constant regrets and doubts and just generally pathetic mopiness. Hobb walked a thin line in the first trilogy between making Fitz a deliberately flawed character and just making him annoying and socially obtuse to the point of ridiculousness (and plot manipulation).  We get a lot of the latter in the first third of the book, but it's tolerable as there is also a lot of good stuff, including fleshing out the world (we learn more about the complexities of the prejudices against the Witted), some nice new characters (innocent, promising Hap and magic-item providing and possible love interest Jinna the witch) and finally some actual hints of badassness from Fitz himself!

There is a lot of preamble and setting up, but ultimately Chade convinces Fitz that he needs to come back to Bucktown and continue his career and destiny.  The bigger plot of The Fool is expanded upon and we learn that he is some kind of destiny manipulator and that he has an antagonist who was maybe involved with the Redship Raiders.  The catalyst that brings Fitz back is the disappearance of the prince.  The Fool, Fitz and a hunstwoman head out to a neighbouring county whose queen had given the prince a hunting cat to which it seems the boy became witted.  This adventure is pretty straightforward for a Robin Hobb novel, basically a long chase and eventual ambush.  I enjoyed it, except for a part that again felt forced and false where they capture one of the bad guys, who was left as a rear guard and is clearly a teenager way out of his depth.  Fitz all of a sudden decides he has to torture him.  The character motivation here was his loyalty to the Farseer line but there were just so many other ways for him to find out what he needed (and he didn't really even need to find out that much).  It just seemed like fake conflict and just out of character.

Fortunately, this was short-lived and the climax is quite exciting (including a teleporting interlude to the beach of mementoes from the Liveship Traders trilogy hinting at greater connects between these two narratives).  Surprisingly, this book actually has a solid denouement where Fitz gets some reward and love for his efforts.  Despite some nitpicks, this was a great start to the next trilogy and I look forward to seeing Fitz's next challenges as the new Chade.