Tuesday, July 29, 2008

28. To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon

To Marry Medusa pictureThe only other Theodore Sturgeon book I read, The Dreaming Jewels, I really enjoyed, so I keep an eye out for his other work. There is a lot out there, but it seems the bulk of his work was short stories and novellas. It's hard to find actual novels by him, but To Marry Medusa was one (though it's almost a novella).

It's the story of a loser alcoholic whose mind gets invaded by an alien collective entity. This isn't just a single species either, but a conglomerate of civilizations all of which have been absorbed by single initiating species. Their home world was destroyed and so they travelled through space looking for a new host. However, they exist in a single, collective form and can't conceive of separation, so when they take over the drunk's mind, they have a hard time figuring out how humans work.

As you read the above narrative, chapters are interspersed with a whole bunch of different stories of people all over the planet: a little girl who gets separated from her family, an emotionally disturbed vandal, a prim old maid, etc. None have anything directly to do with the main alien story, at least at first.

For the first half, I felt a bit removed, especially with all the different, unconnected storylines. But Sturgeon has a plan and when it all comes together, it's actually quite cool. This is a classic science fiction book in that it seems to have come from a single idea or question: what would happen if all of humanity were to be suddenly, psychically collectivized? The answer, in the context of an attempted alien takeover, that Sturgeon provides is entertaining and insightful. Worth the read.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

27. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Darkly Dreaming Dexter picture
I'm really not a big fan of serial killers as a literary genre. The first few times it was okay, I guess, but they always risk the temptation of self-indulgent, titillating sexual sadism and they usually succumb to it. Even worse, though, is the power creep. In real life, serial killers are screwed-up losers who eventually get caught because they generally aren't that smart. In order to make a serial killer book last, you have to have one who is really hard to catch. Since the detective is usually someone who is super smart, you have to make a super smart serial killer. Eventually, you get into Jeffrey Deaver territory where the serial killer is the smartest guy in the world and a Casey Ryback level ex special forces guy. They are more badass than the goofiest Pierce Brosnan Bond villain. At that point, it's just stupid. Yet, for whatever reason, ever since the overrated Silence of the Lambs, the crime genre in print and in film is inundated with serial killers.

Despite my lack of interest in the sub-genre, I did give the first Dexter novel a try. I had watched the first season of the television series and had quite enjoyed the concept. If you're not familiar, Dexter is a sociopath who was trained by his adoptive cop father to satisfy his murderous urges by hunting and killing only criminals. It's a clever idea because you get the cool technique, but done by a good guy against other bad guys that you want to die. It's kind of a procedural vengeance situation. I didn't totally love the series because it didn't spend enough time on Dexter getting the baddies. Instead, there was a lot of unresolved soap opera stuff. It was decently done, but in this case, wasn't satisfying the potential that I had hoped for. The real deal-breaker for me (and the reason I didn't bother with season 2) was the portrayal of the female characters. They were to a woman shown to be constantly stupid and irrational, especially his sister.

So, anyways, back to the book at hand. It is original and entertaining. Dexter is haunted by a serial killer whose skill and artistry blows him away. He also has to help his sister improve her reputation on the force (even though she is stupid, shrill and has no sense of politics; she really shouldn't be promoted). I really wasn't too engaged in the story, because it lies heavily on the serial killer as artist angle, which is boring. And the portrayal of the sister was not much better than the show. However, Dexter himself is quite funny, in his ironic asides and his backstory is engaging. I think I would have gotten into it more if I hadn't seen the tv series, as then it would have been all new.

So in summary, an okay light read, but I wouldn't bother unless you are really into serial killers and want to see a new twist.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

26. Road to Ruin by Donald E. Westlake

Road to Ruin picture
Richard Stark is one of my all-time favourite authors. Stark is one of the many pseudonyms of Donald E. Westlake. As Westlake, his best known creation is probably the Dortmunder books, a series of comic crime capers starring a sad-sack heister and his crew, whose jobs always go hilariously wrong. At their worst, the Dortmunder novels are light fun with an old school New York twist. A few of them are near masterpieces of crime comedy (Drowned Hopes comes to mind). Road to Ruin falls closer to the former category.

The plot setup is a good one. A formerly powerful executive gets busted for ripping off his shareholders and is basically confined to his compound in rural New Jersey. He still has tons of money squirreled away in offshore bank accounts that the Feds can't get at, plus a massive collection of collectibles, including fancy cars. Because he is so hated (his case was a big media splash), he can't get anyone to work for him. Dortmunder and crew conspire to get hired by him in order to steal his cars. At the same time, two different groups (bilked angel investors and angry union members) are plotting to exact their revenge on the executive. The characters are funny and there is a lot of entertaining stuff going on. Unfortunately, it never comes to quite the head it could and instead of exploding in the glorious chaos that often characterizes the end of a Dortmunder book, it all kind of fizzles out. It's a quick and enjoyable read and Dortmunder fans will be happy to be back in his universe. But I'd recommend some of the earlier Dortmunder's if you are only going to read a few.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

25. Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert

Fear to Tread pictureThis all started because I went to the library. I have an on-deck shelf that is threatening to fall of the edge of the chest of drawers it is on. There are a lot of good books there I want to read. I only went to the library to return Daughter Fair before my trip out west. But I decided to take a little browse down the english mystery and sci-fi shelves. And just couldn't help take out a few books, which will do nothing to bring down the width of my on-deck shelf.

One of those books was Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert. I have read this book (and all of Gilbert's books) several times. But it hasn't been since college and I just thought I'd take a look, see how his prose held up. Reading the first couple paragraphs in the library was enough to suck me right back in. His solid prose, his subtle, pithy characterization, his profound love for the english character and lower-middle class London, his sensible conservatism, it was all there in the first few pages where he describes the protagonist, a principal of a large public (in the North American sense, as in state) school in a working class district of London.

Fear to Tread takes place in the early '50s, as Britain is recovering from the war. The principal, Mr. Wetherall, a stubborn and benevolent figure, stumbles, through a series of minor events, on a complex syndicate that is overseeing the stealing and redistribution of goods. Foodstuffs are still scarce and there is a thriving black market for coffee, meat, alchohol, cigarettes and other common but quality goods.

Quite early on, Wetherall, comes right up against real danger. I realize now, one of Gilbert's skills is the way he structures his book. A lot of subtle things happen, so that you don't really know what is going on, but you are intrigued. However, at the same time, he somehow lays out the situation quite cleary in the first few chapters. So from my description, it sounds quite straightforward, idealistic principal goes up against smuggling mob, but when you are reading it, there is so much other stuff going on that you don't really realize how straightforward the overall story is. That "other stuff" involves the many side characters, interesting locations and minor conflicts that might not have anything to do with the main plot. They are all so steeped in the richness of the milieu and the britishness of Gilbert's world, that they are just pleasing to read. Furthermore, he is also a master at the subtle, but totally satisfying resolution moment, where some nasty gossip or manipulative council member suddenly gets theirs.

I really can't do justice to Michael Gilbert's skill. He doesn't get much recognition in North America and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't hear about him much in Britain these days. But he is truly one of the greats. Check out any of his books. You won't be sorry.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

24. Daughter Fair by Peter Graaf (John Christopher)

Daughter Fair pictureDug this one up at the National Archives of Quebec, through the Bibliotheque Nationale. They had it in their computer system and I had to order it. I wonder who was the last person to read it? John Christopher, whom you've read so much about here, wrote at least two detective novels under the Peter Graaf pseudonym. The detective is Joe Dust, an unlikely American living in London in the '50s. I think that's sort of the point here, to juxtapose the cliched, wisecracking American private dick against the more procedural, proper British context. It's an interesting experiment, at least in this novel, with mixed results.

In Daughter Fair, Dust is hired by a wealthy, eccentric to find his favorite, youngest daughter, who has disappeared from the estate while on sick leave from her private school in Paris. The estate itself is a viper's nest of aristocratic weirdos. The rich guy's other two daughters live (and are trapped) there with their two husbands, all dependent on the patriarch, forced to follow his rules and lacking the money and balls to leave.

The Joe Dust character is always wisecracking, to the point of being rude. It's just slightly off. If it had been written by an American at the time, I suspect the american character would have been a little more circumspect and less arrogant. Dust's behaviour reflects the British post-war insecurity towards America's growing success and power. Even weirder, about halfway through the novel, a British inspector shows up, one who has had a history with Dust. They get along fine, in the traditional begrudging relationship of the cop and P.I., but it is the inspector who really seems to figure everything out and do all the right stuff, whereas Dust just seems to hang around and get on everyone's nerves. Daughter Fair is almost like a passive-aggressive version of Conquest in California, where the American is placed as the hero, but ends up ultimately getting shown up by good old fashioned British police work.

The mystery itself was actually quite clever and I enjoyed it's unfolding. All the simpering, dissipated upper class characters were also well drawn out and deliciously contemptible. If there has been one theme throughout Christopher's wide range of books, it's a constant critique of the aristocracy.

Monday, July 07, 2008

23. 5:45 to Suburbia by Vin Packer

5:45 to Suburbia pictureI snagged this one in a box of super-cheap paperbacks at one of the larger used bookstores on Bloor street in Toronto (the one that is open quite late; the bookstore scene in Toronto is quite thriving, it seems). I got it mainly for the cover, which as you can see is quite awesome. The back cover blurb reminded me of a John D. MacDonald novel, without the violence. The lack of violence is usually a deal breaker for me in a book, but something about the set-up, with the guy commuting from the suburbs into the the city in the '50s called to me.

This book is what you'd call a "novel", you know, one of those books that isn't really about anything, where nothing actually happens, but they aren't classics by recognized names where you can at least pretend that there is some kind of "theme" to pull out of them, the kinds of books grown-ups used to read for reasons that were unfathomable to me at the time (the time being most of my life). My aunt flipped through it and aptly labelled it a "Harlequin romance for men".

The protagonist is the second-in-command of a magazine publishing house in New York. He was the right hand man to the president, but his position of power is threatened by an aggressive young newcomer who uses cheap psychology and modern methods in a bid to reshape the company and take power for himself. Another important character is an older, single, female executive (a "C-cup bitch" as the bad guy labels her) who had her day in the company but has now become an alchoholic and is in the upstart's sights as dead wood to be cleared away. She and the protagonist had also had a long-running affair.

That's the basic plot structure, but a lot of the book concentrates on the protagonist's emotional history, his humiliations in high school, his first love in college, the early years of his office affair, his relationship with the boss. It is actually a fairly thorough and believable portrait of a middle-aged, upstate New York, white guy in the '50s. The book overall was quite enjoyable. I got caught up in it and found the resolution very satisfying. The conclusion was a bit on the easy side, but done in an intricate and intelligent enough way that it wasn't until you got there that you realized it was all going to work out in a cool way. So I guess it was kind of a male Harlequin romance. I don't think I need many more of them, at least not with some good punching and shooting in between, but it kept me happily reading for a few days.

I also note that this book would have made a perfect storyline for the current hit TV series about '50s ad executives, Mad Men, an episode of which I happened to watch with the same wise aunt the week before.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

22. Scapa Ferry by Antony Bridges

Scapa Ferry picture
The cover style and blurb "qoute" made me think this was going to be a WWII nautical adventure book, which it is, in a sense. But I thought it was going to be a fictional story about a single adventurous enterprise. It doesn't say it's a true story anywhere, but I'm pretty sure it's actually a real-life account. It's about a guy who loved sailing and wanted to join the navy, but because of a slightly bum leg, was not able to. Instead he set out, with his wife, to contribute however he could, which he found out was to set up a charter boat to ferry supplies back and forth across the Scarpa Firth, a treacherous piece of sea between the northern tip of Scotland and the Orkney Islands. The British were building a naval base there at the beginning part of the war (if you look at a map, you can see that the Orkneys are strategically very important) and getting supplies to keep the construction moving was difficult due to lack of resources, skilled manpower (everybody was being sent to fight) and lack of mobilization of existing local freight and fishing vessels.

So this guy and his wife buy a small sailboat, make their way up the coast (dangerous in itself), deal with the bureaucracy of the British government and military (even though they were trying to help, they keep getting stopped for not having the right paperwork) and set themselves up to take dynamite and blasting caps between Scranton and Lynness and a few other points. It's really more of a chronicle.

What it really is, is some hardcore sailing porn. And because of that, I'm putting this one in the mail immediately to Jarrett, owner of the Redwing. I suspect this will keep his mast upright long into the night. For me, it was really tough going in the first half because I barely understood half of what was going on, there is so much specific vocabulary. There are of course tons of things on the boat that are named and not described. There are also actions of the boat and weather behaviours. I slowly picked up some stuff and there was enough characterization and funny human anecdotes along the way, that I stuck through. There also is a ton of geography, and I did have to take some google maps research breaks to figure out where they were, though there also were some cool little maps and diagrams in the book itself. By the second half, once they get established in Scranton, the story and struggles of their daily lives came to the forefront and I really got into it.

See, one of the things I love about these British adventure authors from the 60s and 70s is their attitude. It's that classic stiff-upper-lip, let's be sensible and not cause a big fuss but do what we have to do attitude that is so lacking in everything and everyone around me these days. Though not being a fictional adventure, this book is full of that attitude. At one point, early in the book, his wife loses the top of her left index finger in the middle of a harrowing attempt to untangle their anchor from another boat in a bad storm. She doesn't even mention it until they get out of the situation and then it's simply and quietly bandaged. Later, he mentions that he realizes it was quite lucky to only be her finger, that the whipping cable could have badly injured or even killed her. But there is no unnecessary histrionics or drama and his wife's stoicism only reminds him of what a good egg she is.

I struggled through the first half, but it ended being worth it. A very satisfying read which reinforced some of my own personal values.