Friday, May 31, 2024

32. The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I'm going to laud the physical aspects of this book more than its contents.  Unfortunately, once again I can't remember where I found this, but I do remember that I picked it up because of the way it looked.  I also had an inkling that I had wanted to read some Mary Roberts Rinehart and that she may have been another forgotten female suspense author.  Unfortunately, The Bat was rather light, slightly goofy and too long, overstuffed with dialogue and fakeouts to artificially prolong what little suspense there was.  It felt a lot like a long version of the much-maligned Mr. Chameleon old-time radio show*, written more to appeal to people who want to read about the upper classes than actually feel suspense or solve a mystery.

The story seemed promising, as did the main protagonist.  The book begins with a prologue where various people of authority cry out how this new nefarious criminal genius "The Bat" must be stopped.  The specifics of his crimes are left unsaid but they involve at least two murders and he always leaves some kind of bat symbol behind, even a dead bat once.  We then get into the main, local narrative.  Miss Cornelia Van Gorder is an elderly aristocrat who has rented out a new summer cottage and longs for some adventure in her life.  Her main companion is her histrionically (I think this was meant to be funny) frightened maid Lizzie and her niece Emma is staying with her for the summer.  The previous owner of the house, a bank owner whose bank was recently embezzled by a teller of hundreds of thousands of dollars and foreclosed had died and his nephew, in need of cash, had rented it out.  Now Miss Van Gorder has received two threats to not move in and the previous owners' cook and housemaid had quit in fear, leaving only Billy, the Japanese butler (though overall treated fairly as a character, was pretty much the stereotype of the inscrutable oriental and was referred to as "the Jap" throughout).

Things started out okay, but soon there were just too many characters (the detective, the doctor, the new gardener) and inconsistent plotting so that some little things are revealed explicitly to the reader while others aren't so that it was just kind of a mess.  The woman, except Miss Van Gorder, are always frightened, screaming and fainting and the men are mostly obdurate and stupid.  I pretty much guessed the broad lines of the mystery before halfway, which given how bad I am at ever figuring out mysteries, is a bad sign.  The book is not terrible, and some of the elements I didn't enjoy are more cultural tropes of the period, but it really could have used a major rewrite driven by a more plot-focused editor.

Speaking of period, as I said it's a beautiful little book in great condition (somewhat dinged now that I read it sadly).  My wife took particular notice of the cover and asked about it (unfortunately she thought it was going to be some dark horror suspense).  I was quite surprised when I finally parsed the roman numerals in the copyright page (MCMXXVI) and they came out to 1926!  This book is almost 100 years old.  That is very cool and may make it a keeper despite it not being a great book.

Monday, May 27, 2024

31. Valérian - L'Intégrale Volume 3 by J.C. Mezieres and Pierre Christin

Now we are starting to get into the meat of this series and I can see that it really is very reminiscent of Star Trek (interestingly I somehow convinced my daughter to watch the first two episodes of the original Star Trek with me; she was not negative).  I'm also noting the playful tone of the first two volumes continues and even reinforces itself here, with a lot of the banter being Valérian treated as the big hero while quietly Laureline does much of the work behind the scenes (while worrying about Valérian).


L'Ambassadeur des ombres (1975)

This story was really cool, totally would have blown my mind if I had read it when I was a nerdy adolescent.  This is the cool joy and chaos that I suspect makes this series so influential.  The action here takes place on Point Central, which in and of itself is an awesome concept.  It's the first meeting point in space between two civilizations.  They connected their vessels to make a little space station.  Other civilizations came and joined them to the point that countless millennia later it is the meeting place for all known space beings, a massive, unregulated conglomeration of ships that is basically a massive, barely mapped, multi-celled world.

Valerian and Laureline are transporting (and supposed to be security guards for) the arrogant Terrian ambassador who plans to finally impose order on Point Central.  He (and Valerian) are promptly kidnapped and Laureline has to make her way through several fascinating cells of other civilizations to find them.  She is also responsible for the Transmuteur Grognon de Bluxe, a grumpy little creature who can eat one pearl or gold coin and then poop out thousands, so basically a walking wealth creator.

This one has a neat ending that both reveals some of the past of Point Central and has a pro-diversity anti-control message very appropriate to the period in which it was created (and a message even more necessary today).

Sur les terres truqués (1977)

This is the classic real world is like a videogame story, where Valérian is sent out on a mission to what looks like 20th century France but keeps getting killed.  It was a neat little story and perhaps they invented the concept here, but at this point, it`s been done so many times that the twist didn't seem all that special.  It was also was so typically french where the concept was that this mysterious designer had create simulations of ancient earth because he found its conflicts so fascinating, but except all the various simulations Valérian visits are basically in France and of course 19th century France.  So typically frenchly solipsistic. They love their Belle époque!  :)

Les Héros de l'équinoxe

This story is a fun opportunity for Mézières to really go to town with the art and design.  Four heroes representing different types of civilizations (aristocratic warriors, industrial collectivists, spiritual naturlists and humble Valérian) arrive at a planet that depends on a quest every generation to go the Island of Children and bring back new babies.  Their heroes have failed and gotten too old.  We get these great parallel panels, showing the four heroes first in their backgrounds and then as they go on the quest and battle the various challenges.  Of course, Valérian wins and gets to ball with this awesome fertility babe goddess creature.  A lot of fun.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

30. Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I got this from my brother-in-law for Xmas.  I was quite looking forward to it, hoping mainly based on the trade dress that it would be a fun, sci-fi/action ride sort of like a dystopic future Joe Abercrombie.  It's actually much more serious than that and has a very specific political agenda, a critique of the American prison system (and adjacent professional sports as well).  It's preachy at points and too direct for me, but once you accept that the message is the point of the book, it is quite well-done.  The world-building of a too close near future where prisoners can get themselves out of jail (and into another kind of prison) by participating in death games.

The main narrative is two of these convicts, Thurware and Staxxx, who are at the 1 and 2 spot in the sport and are nearing "freedom" status, though so far nobody has ever actually been freed.  They are also lovers and friends in their chain together.  Interwoven throughout their story, are short insights into all the other various people who are involved with these games: the protesters, the board members, the prison bus driver, fans of the games (including a really cringy portrayal of a couple where the mansplainer boyfriend convinces the more sensitive girlfriend to get into the games).  None of it adds up to much in the real world, which is fitting as this is meant to be a realistic extrapolation of our world.  There are asterisks with footnotes discussing real world statistics and issues in our prison system.  These are written first in a factual style and then concluded with polemical sentences.  I found these off-putting.  If the facts don't convince the reader of the utter fuckedupedness of the American prison system, then falling into emotional and poetic language isn't going to either.  Maybe this is a release for the writer and maybe the internet generation now responds to these kind of emotional appeals/self-confirmations.  It's not my jam.

The details of this new reality sport are really well thought-out and they shine a dark light on how these things work in today's sports entertainment world.  The participants are ranked according to how many kills and they earn Blood Points by sponsorships which allow them to buy perks like good food and a better sleeping cot and advantages like watching video of their upcoming opponents and better weapons and armour.  The fan experience is tracked and narratives developed while these flying eyeball things surround the players almost all their lives recording them.  It's frightening.

If you want some serious near sci-fi, socially hard, that explores in an interesting way, how the prison system and professional sports intersect with race and sports, then I would recommend this book.  The characters are interesting and there is some pretty brutal combat, but it's not a super-entertaining ride.  

Sunday, May 19, 2024

29. The Chill and the Kill by Joan Fleming

Great cover, but come on
This is the second of the two Joan Fleming books that I bought based on the cover and the blurbs (very briefly skimmed) alone.  It's a different story and situation, but the books are very similar in their broad construction.  Both are wrapped up in the trappings and conventions of genre but really the bulk of the book is just about a bunch of interesting people in their environment.  The cover here is particularly egregious in how what it communicates has almost nothing to do with the actual book.

The main narrative is about a young adolescent girl in a small country town in England, who when struck by the Vicar's car, develops precognition.  This shows itself immediately when upon awaking and seeing the locum (new word for me, in this case it is the temporary doctor replacing the regular one), she announces that he will be found dead in the woods in a few weeks.  This indeed happens and she starts to become a sensation.  There is also eventually a murder (of which she also had a vision), but it happens almost at the very end of the book, with a few chapters of mystery speculation and then it is all resolved.

Most of the book, which is quite engaging, though is about the small town of Marklane, the various characters (with an emphasis on her family and the aristocratic family of the town) and their relationships.  The girls ESP powers are the thing that hangs it all together and create some change/conflict, but the book would have been probably 90% as enjoyable without that or the murder mystery.  I get the feeling Fleming had all this local life in her to write about but needed marketable elements to hang it on.  These aren't masterpieces of daily life, more like a pleasant and engrossing few hours in a gentle little British village. Not a bad way to spend the time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

28. Running Wild by J.G. Ballard

This really is a novella, but it is in its own, separate book, so I'm counting it.  It's written from the perspective of an unnamed psychiatrist who though not well-respected because of some of his more outlandish theories and approaches, is called in to investigate a mass murder and kidnapping in a gated upper middle-class estate.  In a matter of hours, every single adult was brutally and efficiently murdered and all the children spirited away.


Though it is presented initially as a mystery, the basic secret is pretty obvious right from the get-go.  I wonder if we have become that much jaded in our media since 1988 when this was written that it is possible at the time that it wouldn't be obvious what happened here.  The lack of mystery is okay,  because this book is really more of one of Ballard's many explorations of an idea.  What's great here is that he is basically foreshadowing the potential horrors of extreme helicopter parenting (tip of the hat to Meezly for pointing that out).  As the investigator explores the estate, we learn how the children there had the perfect lives, with everything taken care of and  their parents being hyper-sensitive and loving but also hyper-vigilant.  All the kids were successful, high-achieving and well-adjusted.  Until they weren't.

I also add that Ballard is just a very good writer, with clear, direct prose that moves along with just enough imagery and figures of speech to enrichen without distracting.  He does descriptions of murder scenes in a very effective way without ever needing to go really into the gore.  At the beginning, I got the feeling he was enjoying simply exploring the horror of this perfect estate on its own without even referencing the murders that had happened.

A fun, instructive and gruesome little read.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

27. The Black-Eyed Stranger by Charlotte Armstrong

I respect Charlotte Armstrong, but I'm not sure I love her works always.  She has a tendency to emphasize the inner thoughts of her characters over actual action, so you get a lot of pages where it's not clear if anything has happened.  Her characters also tend to wallow in their anxiety, which I think is representative of the time and milieu in which she wrote but also perhaps of her feminine perspective.  She is very skilled in her prose, her plots and characters, for me, they are sometimes submerged too deeply in the fretting and worry of half-sentences and unfinished thoughts.

The Black-Eyed Stranger went particularly hard in this direction and it was a bit of a slog for me to get through.  It also felt somewhat implausible and that the main character's actions didn't entirely make sense.  The story opens in a party somewhere where uptown girls shouldn't be and an uptown girl, an heiress is off to the side when an older man notices and strikes up an odd conversation, basically suggesting in a pleasant way that she probably shouldn't be there.

This older guy is Sam Lynch, the black-eyed stranger, a journalist with a knack at figuring things out and holding his tongue, to the point that it has hurt his career.  In the next scene, he stumbles upon the gangster, Ambiellie and his gigantic and simple right hand man "Baby".  Lynch cottons on by his knack that they are planning to kidnap the heiress.  Driven by his conscience (and because he was so charmed by the girl), he decides he finally has to act rather than just sit on the sidelines, but he risks his own life because if Ambielli learns that it was Lynch who warned the family, he would definitely go after him.

It's a great premise, but we get pages and pages of dialogue where nobody (and especially Lynch) will just come out and say what is going on.  It is sort of justified, but it is also super spazzy.  He doesn't trust the family to properly protect her, I guess because they are so naive about the world of crime or something and he then does something really crazy.  The heiress' fiance is an upper-class "do-gooder" who studies crime (that's why they were at the party), but also made out to be a real idiot and obnoxiously opposed to Lynch.  He never gets a satisfying comeuppance.  The ending is kind of exciting and it all sort of came together with a weird sort of older man younger girl romance of respect.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

26. A Ticket to Hell by Harry Whittington

Ah, that's more like it.  After slogging through the muddled and over-stuffed Blue Moon, I needed a well-written palate cleanser and who better to turn to than paperback pro Harry Wittington. This book starts out moving forward, lean and focused with a trunkful of intrigue.  A guy (whose name we later learn is Ric Durazo) is driving a porsche fast across a desert state. He's picked up a young punk hitchhiker and he knows the punk is going to try and roll him.  In the first few pages, you that he is bitter, that he is tough and that he has some kind of mission in the small town of Los Solanos, New Mexico.

For some reason, he is supposed to check into a specific motel and lay low there, awaiting a call.  Of course, right away there is trouble. The hotel owner's wife has "her pants on fire" (I love this phrase) and immediately becomes resentful and nosy when Ric rejects her advances.  Worse, while waiting in his room and looking through the blinds, he sees the dude in the cabin next door sneak out, turn off the gas line (which will kill the pilot light to the heater) and then turn it back on again, seemingly attempting to murder his wife asleep inside.  And thus the moral choice is thrust upon him, either don't get involved and wait for the phone call (whose provenance is not yet explained but is clearly of the ultimate importance to Ric) or go out and save the girl.

Ric, of course, does get involved and shit gets complicated.  As it turns out, Ric's back story and his reason for being out there is the main narrative and more interesting.  Whittington does an expert job of both putting Ric in an impossible position and slowly teasing out what he is doing out there.  We get a long chase in the desert mountains, some intense romance (hinging on Ric providing the woman with her first real orgasm, which is either a bit much or quite fun or both) and a cool shoot-out.  It's an intense, readable little thriller, though ultimately falls on the heroic rather than noir side (which I appreciated, being a big softie).

I picked up this Black Lizard edition for a buck at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale.  I actually have a very minor indirect history with Black Lizard books. I worked during my college years at a book distribution warehouse for a minor empire of used books and remainders and they had an excellent collection of Black Lizards.  The story goes that Barry Gifford himself delivered them and was a total asshole to the point that he was throwing boxes of books from the back of the truck onto the guys from the warehouse trying to unload them.  It never was explained what he was so mad about, but I'll forgive him as Black Lizard books was crucial to reviving the careers and reputations of several great crime authors and The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films is one of my all-time favourite books.

Monday, May 06, 2024

25. Blue Moon by Walter Wager

I can't remember who recommended Walter Wager's books.  I noted that they had specifically recommended the books Viper Three and Sledgehammer.  This was the first I had found in years (at Moe's in Berkeley) so I grabbed it.  Unfortunately, it really wasn't good to the point that I think I will have to take his name off my list.  The issues I had with Blue Moon were deep enough that I do not have confidence that any of his other books would be to my liking.

Blue Moon was written in 1980 and the novel idea is that the protagonist is an ex-CIA turned head of a private security agency who is a badass (but super hot) woman.  The story here is that she is hired by a top-level background mafia don (he flies her via helicopter to his armed and secured outpost in the desert) to investigate a ransom extortion plot against several mafia-run hotels in Las Vegas.  Anonymous badguys are asking for 5 million or they will bomb several hotels.  Because the mafia doesn't want any of their background activities revealed to the feds, they hire Alison Gordon.

The fundamental problem with this book is apparent early on, excessive explaining.  I hoped this would only be in the beginning, but it is pervasive and exhausting.  This book could have been 2/3 possibly even half the length and a lot of more fun if somebody had gone through and cut out all the side references and diversions that I guess were supposed to be interesting but just seemed distracting.  The second major problem is that the plot and the characters are all over the place.  The actual stuff going on is not bad, but it is all revealed so awkwardly, with fake-out red herrings that are not satisfyingly resolved and a second conspiracy that is weaved in and out in a confusing fashion so that by the time the big climax is setting up, you kind of don't care any more.

There are also several annoying behaviours in the writing, that one could critique as not being PC but are also just stupid and tiresome.  He is just constantly going on and on about Gordon's beauty and in particular her breasts.  Pretty much every female character has her breasts discussed and breasts are constantly mentioned even when there aren't specific characters.  Hey, I love breasts and am quite happy to read about them, but this felt like it was edited by a 13 year old boy who wanted more boobies.  Likewise, I know this was the end of the 70s and the early 80s, a very awkward period for us Yakubians culture-wise, but again it's just the constant mentioning of the race of a character (of which to be fair there was quite a diverse group amongst the good guys) and then some cliche or (even cleverer) a surprising anti-cliche!  Oh look it's the black driver who also has a Ph.D!

This was really a slog.  The actual story could have been a lot of fun, with a combo of ex-military bank robbers and a Carlos-type (literally named Carlos) radical left terrorist plotting a bomb attack using RC airplanes.  Unfortunately, the layers of badness eliminated pretty much any of the fun.