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.