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