Thursday, April 11, 2024

22. Tether's End by Margery Allingham

I tried to read Margery Allingham years ago (More Work for the Undertaker), when I was way too young.  I may have even read it twice and both times was thoroughly confused and unentertained.  The wise Kenneth Hite who has excellent taste in literature, among other things, recommended this one  (under the title "Hide my Eyes") in one of the Ken and Robin Consume media posts.  He said:

Chief Inspector Luke suspects a killer operates from the London backwater of Garden Green; Campion agrees. After a riveting prologue, Allingham reveals the killer cubist-fashion from multiple perspectives over the course of one day’s investigation. Superbly constructed crime thriller with Allingham’s gifts for character and observation (especially of the grimier parts of London) tuned to perfect pitch.

You can see why I was inspired to hunt this one down.  It took me a while despite Margery Allingham being not hard to find in most used book stores.  I think it was because of the different titles, (also called "Ten Were Missing").  I finally found it at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale.

I can't disagree with most of what Hite says above, except perhaps the "perfect pitch" part.  I found the book at times really enthralling and at other times somewhat frustrating.  It's not a mystery so the suspense was not in figuring out what happened but whether or not the innocent people would fall victim to the sociopath.  His elaborate alibi plotting was quite interesting as was the police's investigation.  However, I felt that at times the suspense was elongated because of unrealistic human behaviours.  Several times, the police haughtily dismiss clues as being worthless, which just seemed fake since they were desperate to figure the case out.  Likewise, the young hero (whose adventurous day with the murderer was quite fun to follow) behaves with this weird chivalry of avoiding the police so the young girl he loves name won't be besmirched.  It all felt a bit forced to me.

The plot involves a widow who runs a curio museum in a side alley in London's east end.  She is friends/surrogate mother to a charming man who we learn quite early on is also a sociopathic murderer.  She has written to a distant niece by marriage hoping that she will come and inherit her shop and even possibly marry the man.  The niece's younger sister comes instead (as the elder sister is already married) and happens to write a young man, Richard Waterhouse, who is from her village as a precaution.  Richard smells something fishy (and is slightly jealous) with the sociopath and investigates.

If I were desperate, I would not hesitate to pick up another of Allingham's books, but since I have a plethora of British women mystery writers already to choose from and I suspect her style is not so much to my liking, it will probably have to be specific circumstances or recommendations for me to read her again.



Sunday, April 07, 2024

21. Black Reaper by Roger Blake

Actually a nice illustration
Pulp slave fiction is not really my jam, but I bought this one (part of my Encore Books mini-haul) because it was from the New English Library.  The NEL is of course now known among paperback-heads for its  quite rare skinhead series.  I have never seen one in the wild, so thought I should pick this one up.

Wow, is it ever bad!  The n-word is used extensively, but the real offense in this book is the utter lack of any skill or effort at any of it.   I was about to go into detail about the lack of structure, the random jumping between characters perspective, the jumbled exposition but really the entire thing feels like it was written in one go in a day with zero editing (though to be fair, everything is spelled correctly and the grammar is error free), which it probably was.  Nothing in this book evokes the slightest emotion in the reader.  The characters are empty stereotypes.  When things happen, they are told in such a dull, rote manner that you don't care.  The action scenes have zero energy.  Even the sex scenes, of which there are many, are maladroit and the opposite of titillating.  

I guess the point of the book was to sell copies based on the 70s trend of the history of slavery.  The cover is basically Kunte Kinte, no?  And maybe the thought of some violence and black on white sex would further move copies.  Imagine my surprise when I read that this is the sequel to Black Harvest! (The same author also wrote Black Summer and Black Fury.)  I can not begin to imagine how the backstory would hold any interest.  

The story such as it is involves Hester Grange who owns a bunch of land in Canada (!) where she attracts runaway slaves but actually basically treats them like slaves.  Now Canada did not treat runaway Black Slaves very well and we have a shameful history and ongoing present of racism in this country, but Roger Blake clearly did not even try to base this on reality.  The book begins in confusing medias res with Grange ordering a slave hunter to shoot Paul, the slave who was supposed to kill her husband.  The rest of the book is the slave hunter plotting to get revenge on Paul and Hester (though it's not clear why other than racism that he is so particularly mad at Paul who didn't do anything but run away).  This is interspersed with Paul making friends with the local Ojibway tribe and falling in love with the chief's hot daughter.  Meanwhile Hester is sending all her men to hunt down Paul because he was a witness but really because she lusts after him.  She has the markings of an interesting character but her being a tyrannical outpost leader whose downfall is her libido is just a mess.  Even though she is super hot, nobody wants to have sex with her.  She gets Paul drunk, forces herself on him and then spends the rest of the book trying to abort the baby they made.  I know it sounds grotesque and over the top in a pulpy way but really it is all so incompetent that you just don't care.

To top it off, the glue holding the cover to the spine disintegrated and now it is falling apart. I can't bring myself to just recycle it as it is a book after all, but it's in such a bad condition and I really can't imagine anybody else wanting to read this that I don't know what to do with it. 



Friday, April 05, 2024

20. Miss Bones by Joan Fleming

I discovered this at Encore Books purely by going through the shelves.  It was a whim to buy it (and one more by her) based on the great cover design, the weird name and blurb and that it was a woman author.  I thought based on the design and blurb that it was going to be a supernatural or horror book, but it turns out to be more of a classic, almost cozy, suspense/murder mystery of British mid-twentieth century.  It's culturally interesting to compare it to The Ferguson Affair, also published in the same year.  Very different books, though both have hints of how the protagonist/author are weirded out, even disgusted, by the first waves of the new youth movement.

The book starts out with compelling intrigue.  Thomas, a young man of a good family (father a peer and ambassador in Argentina) takes on a job restoring pictures for a very weird guy named Walpurgis who runs an antique shop in Shepherd's Market, London.  The real pleasure in the book is the first half where Thomas doing his best to get along with the quite ugly and aggressively but vaguely cheery and open Walpurgis also tries to figure out what the hell is really going on.  He also gets to know the new neighbourhood and the various characters who come and go, including a pixieish young woman with heavily made-up eyes and bizarre antique clothes (the Miss Bones of the title).  

Unfortunately, as it went on, the narrative moved away from the intrigue and weird to more of a banal, though well thought-out, crime set up.  I figured it out before Thomas did (which isn't hard; he is portrayed as somewhat naive and traditional).  At about halfway through, Walpurgis disappears.  The plot becomes somewhat muddled as Thomas investigates while getting in and out of suspicion with the police.  There is a big twist (that I also saw coming) and a really kind of lame denouement where he is basically handed the pixieish girl deus ex machina (not unrelated to his own rescue actually) that rendered the book quite soft and traditional.  So I was somewhat disappointed in the ending.  I like a neat narrative where everything works out, but Thomas doesn't really do very much and is kind of a nice, passive guy and gets saved and the girl, so it felt forced.



Wednesday, April 03, 2024

19. The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald

We went to Encore Books in NDG as a family as my wife wanted to do some hunting.  I had been here before and was somewhat disappointed.  They have a quite good collection of science fiction with a lot of older paperbacks but there mystery section was quite disappointing, all new big names.  However, I discovered a random shelf on the back side of an island that was four rows of old pulpy paperbacks, lots of men's adventure (some beautiful Fontana Eric Amblers) from a range of times.  This is the magic of the cluttered used book store!  I grabbed this Ross Macdonald on a whim, thinking it was Ross Thomas and because the first sentence grabbed me (probably more a nostalgia instinct because those 80s paperbacks were all around my house as a child).  It was only when I got home that I realized it was Macdonald, which also wasn't a bad thing and maybe even better.

So I jumped in and was surprised and to be honest reflexively disappointed that this wasn't a Lew Archer novel.  I continued on and became further disappointed when I found the initial setup kind of clunky and then downright bummed when it turns out the protagonist, defense lawyer Bill Gunnarson, has a pregnant wife at home who is naive and that he neglects.  I unfortunately am now all too aware of the Millar's rough marriage and their terrible, near-abusive treatment of their daughter and I could feel some of that post-WWII dysfunctional gender dynamics in the narrative.  Gunnarson has this super crazy rough day where he comes upon an antique store owner with his head bashed in when then dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital which leads to all kinds of other craziness and when he comes home hours late for the lamb his wife especially made for him, he refuses to tell her anything because he "can't"?!  I mean what the fuck white people from the '50s.  I'll grant you being hours late for dinner, but not even calling and then having no explanation. The behaviour all rests on such deep sexism that the woman is not only supposed to be at home but she shouldn't even be privy to your day's work because of some made-up lawyer code.

I would argue that this behaviour was even more sexist than was normal for the time period.  And what's even weirder, is that as I read through the book, I really started to get the feeling I was reading a Margaret Millar book.  So many of her themes are foremost in this book.  Now I need to read more Macdonald, as I suspect both their themes overlap so I could be wrong here, but I mean we have the private club with the swimming pool, we have a sympathetic look at the Mexican American community and several key characters, we have deep family secrets that go waaaay back.  Even the tone felt more Millar-like than Macdonald.  I know she did a lot of editing of his books and I'm wondering how far it went with this one (and maybe part of the reason why it isn't a Lew Archer).

The good news is that as the book went along, it got better and better.  The plot structure by the end is quite brilliant, delivering so much more than I anticipated from the opening set up.  We get a great set of really broken characters and a rich look at how they got there.  What I love about this book is that you learn these backstories via detecting.  It is shown in the sense that Gunnarson keeps digging until he finds their families and goes and talks to them and you get the whole damaged mess not just through what happened to them but seeing the old version of the people who did it to them.

Just for the record, the story involved initially a gang of burglars who appear to have some connection to the hospital for figuring out who is not at home.  The case appears to be broken open by the murder of the antique dealer who may have been selling the stolen goods, but starts to get much messier when an ex-movie star who is recently married to a Canadian oil tycoon (nice legit CanCon also here thanks to the Millars) gets kidnapped.  These two seemingly disparate cases are connected by a handsome but sleazy lifeguard at the club who has also disappeared.  Things get complicated and fun.  Recommended.



Saturday, March 30, 2024

18. Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold (#9 in the Vorkosigan saga)

I guess Memory could be considered an interstitial novel.  I also suspect it may be the transition book to a new phase in the series.  Miles is basically grounded on Barrayar, after the seizures from his being resurrected from cryosleep cause him to accidentally slice off a rescued hostage's legs.  The real problem, though, was not the accident (Bujold has a nice wry way of treating these kinds of horrific space injries that make them somehow slightly funny), but that Miles lied about it on his report to his Barrayan ImpSec spy master, Simon Illyan.  He is caught and is forced to resign and give up his military duty, leaving him stuck at his family's mansion alone and brooding, trying to figure out his future (including the option of running away back to the Dendarii mercenaries to be his alter ego Admiral Naismith forever).

However, he isn't given long to fret as Illyan starts displaying bizarre behaviour, seemingly losing track of time.  This gets worse and worse until he has a total breakdown.  Miles now must act as a Vor and old family friend, against the new chief of ImpSec.  This book never really gets going into this main plot until the second half and even then it doesn't feel totally like the main story.  The real story here is Miles trying to figure out who he is and we also get a good dose of Barrayan aristocratic developments, including the emperor finally falling in love.

It's not a rip-roaring adventure, but I still found it absorbing and a page-turner.  We know the characters quite well now. This was finally the book where I think I truly get Miles' character.  He really comes off as brilliant and driven in the way he solves the mystery of Illyan's memory.  The ending and where it seemingly closes off certain storylines and opens new ones was quite satisfying and I'm looking forward to see where it goes from here.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

17. Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Once again, I have forgotten to note where I learned about a certain author.  Somebody I follow strongly recommended Sarah Caudwell's four Hilary Tamar novels and so I added them to my hunting list.  I found 3 of them at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale and without knowing if they would be any good, bought them all.  They were only a dollar and I wasn't sure if I would have the opportunity again.

Well so far so good, this first one is quite a lot of fun.  Once again, I found myself less interested in trying to figure out the actual mystery while really enjoying the writing and characters.  Hilary Tamar is the "detective" (and the narrator) but really it's about a group of junior lawyers and their witty banter who all work for the same London firm.  It is deep in that aristocratic, Oxbridge self-deprecating, classical education rhetoric where they are always fighting about who should pay for the wine and pointing out each other's deepest flaws in the most passive-aggressive way possible.

The situation here is that their least practical friend, Julia, is off to a vacation in Venice on an art tour when she gets accused of murdering one of her fellow travellers, a beautiful young man named Ned, who is found stabbed through the heart in his hotel bed with which she had spent the entire afternoon.  The book is semi-epistolary as the first half is the group reading Julia's letters which are primarily about her trying to hook up with Ned and lead up to the murder (and thus give all these clues).  One of the things I liked about this book (written in 1981) is that both homosexuality and female sexual initiative are treated as given.  Julia simply wants a fling and is both worried about not succeeding but also of making Ned think she actually cares about him.  Ned is travelling with another young man, a strapping, up-and-coming sculptor whom she (and the others) suspect is in love with Ned.

Once again, the mystery once unraveled was quite clever, but there was no way I would have ever figured it out.  The conceit in the book that comes out a bit at the beginning is that while Tamar is the most clever of them, nobody respects here and later, you realize they also find her a pedantic bore as when she is trying to explain her reasoning, they all find excuses as to why they have to be elsewhere. It's pretty funny.  A very enjoyable read and strongly recommended, especially for fans of the cozy.



Tuesday, March 19, 2024

16. The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer

I have been wanting to fill the void of my understanding of how we got from the Byzantines to the Ottomans for a long time now and this interest flared up when I read Abbas' Modern History of Iran.  My European history is not great, but at least I have the broad lines.  The Ottomans and the background to today's Middle East was pretty much absent entirely.  I had been waiting for a recommendation so as to not waste any time with false starts, but ended up discovering this book at the indefatigable Moe's Books in Berkeley.  It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, a well-researched, academic yet readable, chronological history of the Ottoman empire from its beginning in the 13th century when Osman sort of settled in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to its demise after World War I when it reduced itself to the single nation of Turkey.  Spoiler alert:  the ending is rough.

This was an incredibly informative and eye-opening read for me.  It definitely answered how the Byzantime empire fell and was taken over by the Ottoman empire.  But there was so many more historical puzzle pieces filled in for me here that I hadn't anticipated, as well as concepts and ideas that I didn't know I was missing.  The big one was that the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the forced movement of people's, especially Muslims coming back to the Ottomans and Christians leaving them, was a major factor in the structure of the Middle East as we know it today.  Another big piece that this book filled in (though only partially) was the situation in 19th century eastern Europe and especially the Balkans (that were all part of the Ottoman Empire) that led to World War One.  I went to a liberal arts school where we had two mandatory Humanities courses that were supposed to cover much of the 20th century, but even for a very progressive school, they basically omitted the Ottoman empire almost entirely.  It's crazy.

The concepts in history and culture that this book also further enlightened for me were manifold as well.  In particular, though I was knew about the Armenian genocide and had studied it briefly in a summer extension course, I did not realize how it can be argued as the progenitor of the Holocaust itself, as one of the first truly modern genocides, directed via policy and bureaucracy.  The Germans of World War 1 who were allied with Turkey at the time were aware of it, approved of it and in some cases participated in that so that there is a direct line that can be traced to it and Nazi policies in World War Two.

Another interesting concept is the mutability of sexuality and the social mores around it.  Man boy love was a real, common and accepted thing in the first two thirds of the Ottoman empire and evidently in the rest of Europe. Today, much of the literature around it is read as metaphorical, but Baer makes a pretty strong case that it was literally meant.  These weren't gay relationships as we know them today, but rather the socially accepted sexual relationships between bearded men and their "beloved" unshaven boys.  This was open and very common for centuries.  Once a boy became a man, then heterosexuality was supposed to kick in with sex in marriage for procreation.  I am overly simplifying it to point out that this was the cultural norm and not licentious behaviour, as the Ottoman Muslim elites had as strict a social code as their European counterparts.  It's important to read and understand these histories as it really makes one question ones own assumptions about what is "normal".

Baer's big argument is that Ottoman history should not be seen as an eastern other but rather as an integral and integrated part of European history.  He makes a compelling case.  The other big them up until the Young Turks take over and do really horrible things in the name of modernity, is that the Ottoman Empire was fundamentally Muslim in its nature and leadership but existed, survived and even thrived by allowing other nationalities, religions and cultures to live and at times even thrive within its border.  This wasn't just Jews and Christians, but also various sects and interperations of Islam as well.  Not that this was all peaceful and hunky dory as we talking about human beings here so there was plenty of oppression and massacres and injustice.  It was, though, a concept of civilization that was very different than the secular nationalism of the modern Turkish state.  I was very surprised to know that after the Jews were kicked out of Spain in the inquisition, that they fled to the Ottoman empire and it was seen by many Jews as their saviour and a place where they lived in an integrated way under Muslim leadership for centuries. Today's rhetoric is that the Middle East is an unsolvable complex mess where the Muslims and Jews have been fighting forever, but that was not actually the case (well the unsolvable mess part might be).  Knowing history makes one realize that change is indeed possible (for better or for worse) and can and will something that we in our current vision could not expect or even believe could happen.

Friday, March 15, 2024

15. Are You Willing To Die For The Cause by Chris Oliveros

My wife gave this to me for xmas and I'm glad she did because I wouldn't have known about it and it is an excellent addition to my very limited understanding of the history of the Quiet Revolution.  So far, I only know what I learned in high school, which was quite limited and a good podcast series (that I maddeningly can't remember now but was primarily focused on the criminal angle).  Like those previous sources, this graphic novel comes from the anglophone side.  I don't necessarily want to say "perspective" because Oliveros is probably perfectly bilingual and clearly did a ton of research into primary materials in both languages.  Neverthless, it is a factor.  For instance, all the gushing pull quotes on the back are from anglophone writers, and other than Toula Drimonis, transplanted Mile End hipsters like myself or not even from Montreal at all (Seth).  I would love to hear what the francophone historical and bande-dessinee community thought about this book.  I couldn't find a single review of it in french online (maybe my search failed) and I don't think it was published in french.

It's tricky for me to asses the historical validity of this book, mainly because my own knowledge of the history is so limited.  Oliveros' approach, though, also confounds this problem.  He creates a fictional wrapping of the discovery in the archives of CBC television (not Radio-Canada) a documentary about the October Crisis, including previously unpublished interviews with the major players.  Oliveros then uses real quotes and strings them together as if they were interviews for this documentary.  It's a clever technique to give the history a flow and encapsulate a lot of info in a shorter way, since it is in graphic form.  However, it also opens up room for biases and tendencies that may not be apparent to the uninformed reader.

One such tendency that I felt I noticed was that it depicted the early members of the FLQ as being super amateurish and disorganized.  I don't dispute this, as it is basically true.  However, because there is no social context given, the relative poverty of the French-Canadians in Quebec and Montreal at the time, the racism and discrimination in which they lived, you don't get a sense of the anger and despair that was building up that would lead people to such desperate measures.  So yes, they were unrealistic and criminally thoughtless and violent in their approach, but their situation was desperate.  This is why they are exonerated and even considered heroic by many of that generation of Quebecers who lived through the Quiet Revolution.  Anglos who love to bitch about the language police still are not open to this understanding and I think it would have made this book more effective to have emphasized the oppression at the time.

As the book goes along, though, it does do a better and richer job of giving the reader the sense of inequality of Quebec during le Grand Noirceur.  It is also extremely well researched, as the detailed endnotes reveal (and in some ways, this was my most fruitful reading).  The art and the structure is really well done and makes it very readable and brings life to these names and their words.  Like all D&Q products, it is also beautifully produced, a very nice physical object for your bookshelf or coffee table.  I am very much looking forward to the second book, which focuses on the October Crisis.  So despite my concerns above, I would say this an valuable and entertaining book.  I would just love to have a chat with a francophone expert on this subject and have them share their feelings about this book with me.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

14. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

I bought this book new at the great White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. They recommended it as a good fantasy book for a pre-teen and I've been reading it to my pre-teen for the last few weeks.  It was also a favourite of my wife who actually read it as a teen herself.  We read the trade paperback on the right, but she has the lovely original proper-sized paperback, pictured below.  It was written in 1982, back in the day when YA fantasy, though still a sub-genre, was not an industry where every book has to be a series with a netflix tie-in.  It is refreshingly just a book.  Elements of the story and setting are left unexplained for one's imagination to ponder.

The protagonist is Harry Crewe a young woman/older girl (her age is never clearly established), whose parents died and is sent to a remote colonial outpost where her brother is an officer to live with a semi-noble couple.  They are in the desert region of Damar where mining has attracted what their country's expansion.  The natives are called the Hill-Folk and there is a separation between them and the Homelanders as they are called, though not necessarily the violence and genocide that usually comes with this kind of resource colonialism. It's a little hard to figure out what is going on in the beginning, as Harry is new and only overhearing things and the reader sees things mostly through her eyes.  There is a conflict arising with some other Northern tribe, with rumours of strange magic, rumours the Homelanders consider superstition.

The story really gets moving when Harry gets kidnapped by the intense, powerful leader of the Hillfolk, Corlath.  She doesn't know why he took her and it turns out, neither did he.  Rather, he was compelled by his kelar, the innate magic that the Hill-folk cultivate but has been dwindling in recent generations.  The bulk of the narrative is Harry learning about the Hill-folk and becoming a part of them and more, leading up to a battle with the Northerners that is quite cool.  It's an interesting mix of very big and epic changes to her as a character with the action being an important but small tactical battle.

I would say the language and structure of The Blue Sword might be somewhat sophisticated for a pre-teen.  At times, my daughter got a bit confused as to what was going on, as things are often implied or not said altogether so you have to infer from the context and leading narrative as to what is actually going on. I quite enjoyed it myself, but reading it aloud, it is hard for me to give a true impression as my mind can wander and I don't always internalize a book the same way. We both felt that Harry's big emotion of feeling that Corlath was going to be all mad at her was forced and felt artificial, but the rest of it we got quite into and by the end felt very absorbed by the story and the setting.  Recommended.


 

 

Monday, March 04, 2024

13. The Hit by Brian Garfield

I found this in near pristine condition (though faded with age, it appeared that it may have never been opened or at least barely) in a small used bookstore in Nashville.  I quite enjoyed Garfield's Death Wish and he is part of that small group of crime fiction writers of which Donald Westlake is the most famous that made their mark on the genre in the 70s and 80s so I had to pick this up.  

This is one of those thin novels of the past, with a simple premise and a quick resolution (at least compared to the tomes of today).  Simon Crane is an ex-cop somewhere in the Southwest (I suspect a secondary city in Phoenix) who gets sucked into the aftermath of a robbery on a mob safe (and the disappearance of the mobster whose house it was in).  His connection is that he had an ex who was the secretary at the house who discovered the place robbed and was too scared to go the mob bosses and went to him instead, making them both suspects.

The plot itself didn't grab me that much.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like it kind of went in various directions with new characters popping up but none of them having that much meaning to the protagonist or the crime itself.  When he finally does figure out who did the job, it's not all that interesting.  What was really good in this book was the location.  His description of a desert town that is evolving economically from a kind of shitty backwater to a more respectable and wealthier retirement and tourist area was really well done.  The city itself and the desert outside it are evocatively described as are the various weird characters who live there. The Hit, written in 1970, feels predictive of the desert noir mini-trend that would come two decades later to the movies.



Wednesday, February 28, 2024

12. The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

I have been looking for this book forever and finally found this nice trade paperback edition at the White Elephant sale in Oakland.  I'm not a fan of trade paperbacks on principle but this one I have to admit is quite nicely designed.  I think it was Kenneth Hite that made me aware of this book, but I can't remember for sure.  She clearly has been somewhat forgotten.

I enjoyed this book in the end, but I have to admit being quite stymied in the first half.  It was both a bit too sophisticated for me and perhaps too much of its time.  The dialogue was excessively clever to the point that I couldn't understand what characters were trying to say.  Every line was a clever metaphor or indirect allusion or obscure reference.  Perhaps this was how upper class post-WWII drifters talked at the time or perhaps Bennett was trying too hard.  It reminded me a bit of some of the British version of the  worst excesses of John D. MacDonald's hipster early 60s dialogue (though in this case, it was more baffling than annoying).  

The protagonist is Hugh Everton, an embittered hotel reviewer for a travel agency.  It is suggested that though he himself was not wealthy, that he had in the past hobnobbed with a wealthy or at least upper class set.  There was a scandal while he was working for the British embassy in Paris that ended with him in prison for cheque fraud (after being rescued from being drowned in the Seine).  He runs into two women from that scene at a mediocre resort on the English coast, as well as a stiff military man named Atkinson who looks almost identical to a Ronson, but behaves differently, who was responsible for his fraud and near-drowning incident.

One of the women is the beautiful Lucy, who was the one who needed the money that Everton made the fake cheque four.  She is now married to a judge.  She persuades Everton to come back to his place on the hill and while there, a dog howls, a shot is heard and the judge is found dead in his room, while the other four were all playing bride, alibis established.  And thus the mystery begins.

Everton is kind of a broken man, but also impulsive. Part of the narrative arc alongside the mystery itself is him finding his moral core.  The story gets quite good by the end when the murder moves beyond just personal motives into post-war smuggling of undesirable "refugees" from Europe.  And the mystery itself was multi-layered in a complex yet reasonable way that made the resolution fairly satisfying.  I couldn't entirely shake the distancing of the weird characters and their crazy dialogue, so I'm not sure I'll seek out her other books, but if I stumble upon one, I will pick it up and read it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

11. Affliction by Russell Banks

Nice edition
Readin me some literachoor!  I think I must have been drawn in by the trade dress as this is a nicely produced paperback with a great illustrated cover and layout from 1989.  A part of me was also curious about Banks' work, which I guess I learned about when The Sweet Hereafter movie came out.  Since it was Canadian, it got a lot of press with the assumption that everybody should know who Russell Banks was.  Well I guess I finally do now know.

This is a sad book.  It starts out seeming to be like a good noir, with a brother telling the story of his older brother's crime (not yet detailed) and subsequent disappearance.  But it is much more of an exploration of male violence and small town New England.  The protagonist, Wade Whitehouse, is the high school cool guy with a mean streak who has lost his way, now the local police officer (basically directing traffic in front of the school) and dogsbody for a local developer.  His ex-wife has moved with their 11 year-old daughter to the bigger city down south and Wade keeps screwing up every time it is his turn for custody. As the brother unveils his investigation into Wade's unravelling, we see into his mind and slowly get his entire history, especially that of the abuse he suffered at the hands of their alcoholic dad.

It is a moving book and a stark portrayal of what today is known as toxic masculinity.  In my adult life, I have been tangentially exposed to the working class side of New England, where the proximity of Boston and New York City, as well as just being older, makes the distinctions between the rich and poor much more stark than on the west coast.  Affliction really gives you a look at the roots of the poverty and resentment from a neglected small town where everybody with any spark or imagination flees.  In the description of the fictional New Hampshire town of Lawford, it reminded me a bit of Stephen King's It, though obviously somewhat less fantastic.

Though many mainstream reviewers called this noir and tried to compare it to a hard-boiled thriller, it really isn't.  There isn't much of a mystery, besides what is held back by the narrator.  It lacks the punch of a true noir because it is so verbose.  However, it does deliver some thoughtful and powerful substance on what makes men violent and some ideas on how we can stop being so.



Friday, February 23, 2024

10. Perilous Passage by Arthur Mayse

This is another entry in the great series or reprints of lost Canadian "genre" books by Brian Busby working with Ricochet books.  I assumed this was going to be another Montreal-based book but was pleasantly surprised to learn it was a west coast thriller, taking place in the waters outside Northwest Washington State in the 50s.  Thanks to the nice forward by the author's daughter, Susan Mayse, I learned that Arthur Mayse was a long-time journalist and writer in the B.C.  He had quite a cool, old school, hard knocks B.C. life back before it it's suburban respectability facelift.

The story starts out like a classic hard-boiled thriller of the period.  Clinton Farrell wakes up on a boat in bad shape with a young girl holding a rifle leaning over him.  His recent memory is gone but he knows he is a drifter on the after having escaped juvie, done some boxing for money and eventually got a job working on a troller.  The girl, Devvy, turns out to be the surviving daughter of a failed farmer who found his boat drifting when she was out fishing.  She has taken over her father's farm, with the help of a mysterious old character who has a more prestigious past but has taken to the bottle.  

As usual, in these kinds of books, the plot is actually fairly simple but hidden away from the reader due to the memory loss among and distrust among potential allies.  The pleasure is in the peeling away of the layers to figure out what is going which is only mildly interesting here.  However, the characters themselves, the location and action is all pretty exciting, so the simple plot is excusable.  The bad guy first takes the form of Joe Peddar, childhood friend of Devvy, sometime boyfriend by default, from the bad family who himself has turned quite bad.  There are some great fights between him and Clint, described in almost technical detail yet exciting and really tough.

It's an interesting read, as the tone is an odd mix of, dare I say it, American and Canadian.  On the former side, it is quite hard-boiled.  The bad guys are nasty and the punches feel like they hurt.  On the other hand, there is an undercover RCMP agent who is almost like a superhero and the whole thing wraps up on a very optimistic note.  Here is a great quote that thrust the tone from grim to almost melodramatic, in a way that I quite enjoyed:

Patty straightened his hunched shoulders. The change in him was almost frightening. Behind the hired man's ragged clothes, behind the dry and easy humor, you could see the grim manhunter whom neither fear nor pity could swerve.

Here is the original pocket book which would be a sweet find!


 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

9. This Boy's Life: a Memoir by Tobias Wolff

My sister really wanted me to read this as she quite enjoyed it.  I found it quite good but have trouble moving it into the excellent category.  I feel like these kinds of memoirs came out in the late 80s early 90s and furthermore these kinds of books are just not my jam.  I say all that to make clear my biases, because objectively speaking it is a really enjoyable and interesting read, with emotional and intellectual resonance.  It's Wolff's narrative of his own childhood following his divorced mother around as she tried to make a go of it in various cities.  The bulk of the narrative takes place in Chinook, Washington, where she eventually gave in to the ministrations of a pathetic and abusive mechanic named Dwight to marry her.  He is a real asshole, especially to Tobias, but the writing is so subtle in its tone that you are almost sympathetic to him rather than outraged, which I think is Wolff's ultimate revenge. 

It has a removed tone and a clear style, which made the pages really turn for me.  They are also a real counterpoint to today's youth culture of self-diagnosed anxiety and trauma as identity.  This kid really had a rough upbringing but he didn't realize it himself until much later.  There is no self-pity here, which makes you sympathize with him even more.  I am glad to hear that this book is sometimes used in the high school curriculum, because I think it portrays the freedom and fear that used to be childhood back before we started putting foam on every counter corner.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

8. Stopover Tokyo: A Mr. Moto Adventure by John P. Marquand

This was a thin novel that I should have finished in a few days.  Unfortunately, it was so boring and overly-written and predictable, that I had to force myself to get to the end, with my mom telling me to just skip to the end and stop complaining.  She's wild.  I see this is the last Mr. Moto adventure and Marquand died at only 60 a few years later.  I guess he was trying to get out of the game himself, because the theme is of the spy in the business who allows himself to become personally involved and thus compromises himself.

The story, as far as there is one, is centered around all-American 50s spy, Jack Rhyce, going after the "commies".  The red menace here is insanely vague, akin to the I Was a Communist for the FBI radio series.  There seem to be a lot of very real-seeming Americans abroad who have somehow been indoctrinated and now work for the other side, but what they actually do that is so bad is barely explained. Only at the end, do we learn that they plan to assassinate a liberal Japanese politician and blame it on the Americans.

But really nothing much happens in this book except Jack meets a beautiful female spy and they have endless conversations where they play their roles and then complain about playing their roles until I guess they fall in love and decide to leave the business when this job is over.  Of course, she gets killed (and worse).  Mr. Moto is on the sidelines being suspicious and then assisting.  The only element of interest is the background on Big Ben, the big commie who was snubbed at a Southern college so decided to destroy America, I guess.  There was some hints at interesting class issues, but otherwise this book was a snoozer, too caught up in its time to say anything interesting about it, yet not committing to the insanity of that time to at least have fun.

I read that this was an outlier of the Mr. Moto books as the others were pre-WWII and not dealing with the cold war, but I didn't love the first one so despite the beautiful paperback designs, I am done with Mr. Moto.

Lies!


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

7. Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold (#8 in the Vorkosigan saga) + Labyrinth novella

I don't have this edition
Mirror Dance takes the series in a new direction by giving Miles' clone-brother Mark a full narrative and development of his character.  I assume he will show up in other stories in various levels of import.  The tone here, or perhaps the intensity, is really ramped up as well with some horrific torture and more sex.

The story follows directly on from Brothers in Arms, where we first meet Mark and learn about his creation as a secret clone of Miles, trained and indoctrinated to be used as a sabotage device by Komorran rebels.  The story in Mirror Dance starts with him impersonating Miles and tricking a subset of his crew of Dendarii mercenaries to go on a mission to Jackson's Whole, the immoral cloning world, to liberate a bunch of clones from the clone-creche where he was raised (their destiny is to have their brains removed and their bodies used by their elderly owners).  The raid goes wrong and the real Miles in hot pursuit, tries to rescue them and he himself gets killed.

Mark makes it out and his plan is revealed to both the Dendarii mercenaries and Barrayar's ImpSec and Miles' family.  The problem is that one of the medics stuck Miles body in a cryochamber and shipped it off planet when they were under fire (this was kind of a cool idea, that there was an automated shipping center all handled by machines that did its job despite a firefight going on around them).  The first half of the book is Mark returning to Barrayar and being accepted as a Vorkosigan but with much guilt and trepidation on both sides.  I found this section a bit trying, as Mark is really unlikable, whiny and insecure.  It makes sense as he is basically a profound victim of abuse, but it grated on me.

Fortunately, it gets much better as Mark starts to figure himself out and assists with the search for missing Miles and the narrative switches over to Miles himself who finds himself as a sort of prisoner/patient in a very high-end clinic manned (womanned) by clones.  There is lots of excitement as Miles figures out what is going on and the various narratives converge.  The end result is that a blow is struck against the evil Houses of Jackson's Whole and Mark learns who he really is, what he is good at and what he wants to do. It's all a bit accelerated but that is the fun of these books.  Furthermore, Miles now has a real rival for his own hyper-success.  We shall see how their relationships develop.

I found this book quite interesting, as it is a strange blend of Georgette Heyer (namechecked by Anne McCaffrey on the back cover) filtered through good old nerdy sci fi space opera and spiced up with some real nastiness.  Mark's torture session with Baron Ryoval is about as dark and nasty as you can get psychologically and physically and yet somehow lightened up so that it is all kind of fun reading (especially the outcome).  It's quite a trick Bujold plays.  She also deals with a lot of themes of abuse and consent while yet still having oddly inappropriate behaviours (Miles and Mark are often kissing women where maybe they shouldn't be) which I guess is a function of the late 90s when they were written.


Addendum:  Labyrinth (novella)

The one real issue with the Vorkosigan saga is the editions that Baen puts out.  The order is super confusing and often makes no sense.  Part of it may be a function of when Bujold published her books, but still it really requires way too much work to figure out what book you are supposed to read next.  When I started Mirror Dance, there is a cool new character Taura, a genetically-engineered wolf/human super soldier with reference to her having a romantic connection with Miles as well as to Jackson's Whole.  But she came out of nowhere.  Turns out her backstory is in this novella Labyrinth, which I could read in either a collection called Borders of Infinity (which has framing devices of him talking with Illyan but otherwise two stories that I have already read) and the one I did pick up (in at least a normal paperback size for once instead of those oversized volumes that scream nerd and take up half my bag on the plane) called Miles, Mutants & Microbes. This book has Falling Free, a story that takes place 200 years before Miles is born and Diplomatic Immunity which is the 16th book in Miles' narrative!  I guess it is thematically built around quaddies, the species of two sets of hands and no legs that is introduced in Labyrinth, but still.

Anyhow, this story was really cool!  Miles and the Dendarii mercenaries are sent on a mission to pick up a top geneticist from Jackson's Whole who wants to secretly defect.  However, the scientist won't leave unless they also take his viral research, which he injected into a failed super soldier experiment, which had recently been sold to evil Baron Ryoval.  So Miles and the crew are sent to find this creature, destroy it and cut out a chunk of its calf with the genomes.  I really wish I had read this before Mirror Dance, because the surprise is quite fun.  Also, you really get to hate Baron Ryoval here, so his comeuppance in Mirror Dance would have been that much more satisfying.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

6. The Tribe that Lost its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

I mean look at this beauty!
Well this was a massive disappointment.  I loved the Cruel Sea and over the years I had several other of Monsarrat's books that I've discovered.  I also have a certain affection for him having also migrated to Quebec and was a minor literary name here back in the day.  I also had found Richer than all his Tribe, the sequel to this book first and had been looking for this one for a few years and finally found this beautiful Pan edition.  So I was quite excited to read these two.

My legion of readers will know that I am quite capable of enjoying a good adventure even if I don't always agree with the politics behind them.  Most of these post-war manly British adventure guys were often quite conservative.  This book, though, was straight out racist and worse (well not really worse but it pissed me off more), couched the racism in some of the most extreme pax britannica ideology that I have possibly ever read.  Basically, if it wasn't for the British coming in and imposing some civilization on these savages in Pharamaul (the invented island nation of the west coast of Africa) and India, Burma, etc. they would be killing themselves and others and also not advancing their economy.  This argument is presented repeatedly throughout the narrative, so that even if I agreed with it, I would have found it annoying.  Monsarrat wrote this after leaving his posting in South Africa and I can only guess that he had a lot of resentment and was using this to burn it off.

What makes the racism and simplistic pro-colonialism thesis worse is that much of the book is a generally scathing critique, almost to the point of parody, of many of the institutions which make up the expat world in colonial countries.  The media is satirized ruthlessly, primarily in the form of a rabble-rousing British reporter for a leftist newspaper (owned by a lord, of course) who sets the whole thing off by quoting the returning king out of context.  There are also caricatures of the American journalist who is critical of everything British, the ex-soccer jock super racist South African and the presumably lesbian American photojournalists whose every shoot is to amplify the shocking.  Likewise, many of the Brits themselves working either in the ministry in London or locally on Pharamaul, especially the wives are broad caricatures.  And these caricatures, while broad, are thoroughly done and accurate.  Was Monsarrat so caught up in his ideology that he couldn't apply this same critical lens to the colonial structure itself, which is so obviously the cause of all the trouble.

The story has many characters.  The main "hero" is young David Bracken, who has just been posted to Gamate, the central village in Pharamaul.  He meets lovely secretary Nicole and their love is basically a done deal.  The main catalyst character is the tribal king to be, Dinnamaula, who is just returning from his education at Oxford, ambivalent about his role and his future.  A few off-the-cuff remarks by him, exploited by the newspaper man cause all the problems.  First, he says that he wants to modernize his people, which causes the British government to freak out.  Instead of sitting down with him and discussing how they can work together, the district officer barks at him like an unruly child.  He then says to the same reporter that he wants to marry a white woman, which really lights the fuse.  Everybody behaves stupidly with some idea that if only they are "firm" with the natives, with the opposition, that everything will calm down once the natives realize the errors of their ways.  Their firmness consists of basically taking Dinnamaula and putting him under house arrest, which makes things much worse.

What's so weird about this book is that all the things that actually happen are inherently critical of colonialism, yet Monsarrat keeps on arguing that the tribes are not ready to get out from under colonial rule.  It's like he's arguing against himself or at least the reality he created.  Where it really took a nose-dive, was the finale, where the lone white couple in the northern village are set upon and brutally gang-raped and tortured.  It is so over the top and insane and just nasty.  I hate books that use sexual violence to try and give weight to their story or thesis and this was one of the most grotesque and artificial that I have read in a while.  And then to make it even more insance, the denouement is that the hero and his pregnant wife get given that position in that same village and he is psyched about it!  WTF?!

Really beneath Monsarrat's other work, a true disappointment.  He wrote the sequel 10 years later, so I can only hope that his views had evolved somewhat and his simplistic patriotism mellowed.

It even has an awesome map!


 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

5. Needles by William Deverell

I've been looking for this book for a while and I finally found it in a pretty appropriate place: the Pulp Fiction on Commercial.  He is a B.C./Vancouver writer after all.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), it is a first edition hardback and I paid a whopping $21 for it!  This was the book that started it all for Deverell, as it loudly proclaims on the cover.  He is quite a productive person, a journalist, editor then a lawyer and finally an author who also started the B.C. Civil Liberties Union in his spare time.  He lives on Pender Island now and probably has a sweet pad there.  What I find quite odd is that I never heard of him as an author or a local celebrity while we were on the Island (Vancouver, not Pender).  The literary scene in Canada is quite small and on the island even smaller (Margaret Atwood once stayed at a friend's dad's house and we found out about it because the news travelled up the town that she was swimming in the bay).  My mother had never heard of him when he's written a very popular series and won a Hammett.  I've got no explanation.

I discovered him myself thanks to Andrew Nette, who specifically recommended this book.  I forgot his exact words, but my memory of his portrayal was that it was quite gritty.  This set up some false expectations for me, because though this book has a great portrayal of seedy Vancouver in the 70s, it is far from gritty.  Rather, I liken it to that collection of really readable mystery/legal/thrillers that are almost over the top, along the lines of Ross Thomas and Carl Hiassen.  Right at the beginning, we are introduced to Vancouver drug kingpin Dr. Au, a pretty racist (though probably considered the opposite at the time) portrayal and a way over-the-top badguy.  He gets his sexual kicks by expertly torturing people (using a buffet of various orientalisms) and then slicing off their genitals before killing them.  That is not quite "gritty".  So I was a bit thrown off.

Once we got into the case and the main narrative, about hotshot lawyer and (recently backslid) heroin addict Foster Cobb who has the case to prosecute Au for the murder thrust upon him, the book gets quite enjoyable.  There isn't a lot of suspense here as the reader knows what actually happened.  The conflict is whether or not Cobb can maintain his skills while maintaining his addiction and the cops on his side can overcome Au's pressure on the witnesses and the corrupt mountie with whom he is working.  The court case has some exciting moments and there are lots of great little scenes in various parts of sketchy Vancouver that are also enjoyable.  The ending is also a bit silly, with a final action scene on the west coast of Vancouver island, but very beautiful.  And oh yeah, Cobb's other big conflict is that his marriage to his super hot, young ski pro wife is on the rocks and he has to decide whether or not he should get with his super hot, super smart also young Chinese-Canadian lawyer assistant in the case who is a hippy and smokes dope and throws herself at him.  It's all very much of his time, but nevertheless quite entertaining and you can see how the later books are worth following. 



Wednesday, January 17, 2024

4. The Japanese Girl by Winston Graham

This is a book of short stories that I picked up entirely on the basis of the cover design, a classic 1970s Fontana photo cover paperback.  These stories were not my usual jam, but almost all of them were very readable and kind of fun.  Graham writes with a rich yet easy prose.  The themes often involve chance encounters between men and women, relationships that get delayed or strained somehow with hints of the supernatural.  Many of the stories have very light twists at the end.  I've said before that I am not a big fan of short stories because I prefer a longer and more involved narrative.  Because of the exploration of consistent themes, this collection was somehow more satisfying than I expected, even if many of the individual stories were somewhat light or ended ambiguously.  

The only story that I didn't really like was the last one, "But for the Grace of God", which was about another Jesus who was a contemporary of the real Jesus.  I find Christianity super boring and I didn't really get what the point of this one was about.  Some of the highlights were the titular "The Japanese Girl" about a frustrated bank clerk who plans to steal from his bank, give it to his mistress and then do the time to get out to be with her.  They share a love of travelling and plan on taking the money and go around the world  when he gets out.  Things go wrong, of course, but not in the way you would expect.  I also enjoyed "The Basket Chair" about a wealthy director of a paranormal society with a heart condition convalescing at his niece's who encounters the paranormal for the first time.  It had such an obvious twist but somehow I was totally fooled.  Graham is a good writer.  "The Cornish Farm" was also a great little horror story about a couple who purchase a hobby farm and discover it has a nasty past. 

Graham is best known for his historical Poldark series, about which I know nothing.  I see he also wrote several thrillers, which I will definitely check out.  Hmm, actually I may have to read the Poldark series too.



Friday, January 12, 2024

3. Cold Steal by Alice Tilton

I think I must have found this in a Montreal free box, because it has a stamp inside that says "JM Albot, Robertsonville, Que, Canada" and I usually don't buy mapbacks unless it is an author I know, despite the temptation.  It is really beautiful.  It has three pages of guiding info at the beginning, which I did not read until after I had finished the book:  a "Persons this mystery is about-", a "What this mystery is about-" section and a "Wouldn't you like to know-".  I'm glad I didn't because I probably would not have wanted to read the book.

I did some reading on the author before I wrote this.  I usually do it after to be neutral, but this book was so different than anything I read or expected.  I guess it's supposed to be super funny, kind of a slapstick, Nick and Nora style mystery with aspirational elements.  I found it very difficult to read and not funny at all.  There is tons of dialogue where the main thread keeps getting interrupted by silly double entendres of others characters not letting the speaker finish their sentence and thus misunderstanding them.  I guess audiences of the time find it funny, but it fell very flat for me.

The plots, such as it is, starts out on a train.  Our protagonist, Leonidas Witherall, is returning to his newly built home that he has not yet seen.  He oversees a woman surreptitiously putting a package into a garbage can and then a whole lot of wackiness ensues, almost all of it taking place in his new home.  It centers around a mean wealthy woman who opposed the building of the home being found dead in the car of its new garage.  I'm so exhausted from forcing myself to get through this book and the plot is so convoluted and unresolved that it's not even worth making any more effort to write about.

I hope others in our modern times can enjoy these as I appreciate a prolific female author (she wrote a lot to survive the depression), but these are just not for me.  Well now I know.




Monday, January 08, 2024

2. Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

I discovered this book along with several others in this great article from Publisher's Weekly "10 Most Puzzling Impossible Crime Mysteries"  As I've said before, I am a very lazy mystery reader, preferring to be led along by the narrative but the books from this list have started to push me somewhat to try and figure out the mysteries myself.  Some people are really good at this (I remember reading about someone in Murder Ink who reads the first few chapters, then tries to guess it and then skips to the end; if they are wrong, they will then read the book, otherwise they don't bother!).  I'm still on the hunt for The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't figure out the main twist of this mystery, especially as it should be easier (spoilerish hint coming) in these more woke times.

The story started off in an infuriating way! Not in the sense that the book itself angered me but the actions of the characters pissed me off so much that I was all fuming in bed about it and it triggered adolescent revenge fantasies.  Faustina Cayle is a new art teacher in an elite all-girls school in Connecticut who is called in by the headmistress and fired after only a few weeks into her year-long contract.  The headmistress won't tell her why, only that her character isn't right, nor will she give her a reference. Despite paying her for the first 6 months, it's super fucked and actionable, but Cayle is shy and accommodating and doesn't want her own reputation ruined.  We soon sense that there is something going on with her reputation at the school by the behaviour of the girls, the maid who is supposed to clean her room and the other teachers.

It's not super spoiler ish to reveal what it is but if you are interested (and this is a good book), I'd recommended that you stop reading here.  One of the teachers, Grisela, is an educated and upper class European refugee (this is right after WWII) who is sympathetic and happens to be romantically linked to the New York state psychiatric coroner Dr. Basil Willing.  She writes to him and he sense something quite serious is a foot.  The deal is that Faustina seems to have a doppelganger.  The students and the maid have spotted her at the same time in two locations (or so close in time that it was physically impossible) and it has so spooked them that she becomes a pariah.  This is what pissed me off so much, the Yankee puritanism of the time where instead of helping her, they just ship her out.  Fucking puritans are so triggering!

It's very well-written and an easy page turner.  I enjoyed the rich depiction of the milieu of post-WWII New York and New England.  I also found it kind of scary at moments and even at one point got a bit freaked out thinking about it after reading it late at night.  It is one of those mysteries that has depth and several characters, but McCloy is skillful enough that the reader has no problem remembering them, their movations and characters.  So they mystery is quite hard but she does lay it all out for you in a fair and enjoyable way.  You can just read it or try and figure it out for yourself.

There was some digression in discussions between Grisela and Willing about the supernatural, which given how impossible the facts were made sense. I also think these ideas of spiritualism were somewhat in vogue at the time.  I found these somewhat distracting although interestingly, she never fully denies that there may be a spiritual element.

I would have loved to have found an original paperback, but I appreciated this reprint with a cool, illustrated cover.  McCloy is another great female author who has unfairly disappeared.  I found her book to be an interesting contrast with Mary Stewart's The Moon Spinners, written 15 years later.  Somehow, though the gender mores of McCloy's world are even more strict than Stewart's, she as an author comes off as less sexist.  You could make a similar comparison with Dorothy Hughes earlier books who was her contemporary.  I need to think it through more and this is also a potential undergrad thesis for somebody, a study and comparison of female authors and their relative internalized gender discrimination (or something).  In any case, McCloy is worth a look.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

1. Zero History by William Gibson

I rediscovered Gibson with, Spook Country, the second book in what is called the Blue Ant trilogy.  This is the conclusion and even though all 3 work alone and he doesn't really like to consider it a trilogy, it would have been better to have read them in order and closer together.  A lot of the value in this last book comes from knowing (and remembering) what happens in the first two, especially the second one.  I actually found this one to be quite a drag up until the end.  There just isn't much going on and Gibson as usual keeps the back story vague, sort of like a mystery.  The problem is I couldn't connect with any of the characters and nothing of what they were working seemed to have any impact until the backstory was sort of revealed and then it keeps getting explained over and over again.

The two main characters are Hollis Henry, the ex-singer of a successful 80s band and Milgrim, the now recovered pill addict.  Both are being led around on various missions by Hubertus Bigend, the corporate hipster super-boss of design/marketing/whatever firm Blue Ant who is the puppet master in all 3 books.  They are on the hunt for various clothes and the designers who made them that are somehow connected to military uniform contracting.  It's all a bit convoluted and obscure and much of the action in the beginning is them going from hotel to hotel in different European cities with maybe some people following them and maybe not.  I found it all a bit boring and sadly Gibson's excellent prose style that I usually love seems to come off pretentious and tired.

It does pull itself together in the end somewhat, with a somewhat cool hostage exchange whose conclusion connects all 3 books.  There is a very arbitrary unromantic reconnection between Hollis and her ex-boyfriend that I guess was supposed to move us and a more effective one between Milgrim who comes out of his manipulated addict shell and a motorcycle courier, but ultimately it all left me unmoved.  It may have been more effective had I read Spook Country just before but overall it just felt like an unnecessary stretching out of a story that just didn't have that much substance to it.  Too bad.