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.


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!