Wednesday, November 15, 2017

52. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Got this page turner from meezly who I think got it from a colleague at work.  I knew I was going to devour it quickly because she read it quite quickly and I could see the large type and short paragraphs.

I am warning you now this review will have spoilers.  This book is best read not knowing anything.  So I will tell you straight out that it is a page-turning, enjoyable thriller with a really cool sci-fi premise, though it is ultimately about human relations.  That all being said, it is also very much a mainstream book and so is written in a way that I do not enjoy.  Way too much emoting about everything and constant references to class-conscious material goods (like describing the countertops and type of wine in a kitchen that will all feel so dated in a decade).  Also, the main character has to be kind of wimpy and make not the smartest decisions.  People seem to dig this style, but I can only handle a few of them a year.

So here's the story.  Jason Dessen is a happily married physics professor with a 15-year old son.  Coming back from celebratory drinks with his more successful colleague, he is suddenly accosted by a masked man who takes him to an abandoned warehouse and shoots him up with drugs.  He wakes up in a super fancy lab being applauded by a welcoming committee.   They know his name and treat him with deference and respect, but there is also tons of security and armed guards in the lab.  He escapes and makes his way back to his home, but it's all changed and there is no wife and son.  Really honestly you should stop reading this and just go read the book because the premise is really quite cool.

Actually, I am going to stop there as that should give you enough of an idea as to whether this kind of book is for you or not.  I ended up enjoying it, though with the reservations mentioned above as well as one major logical flaw which I will put down below for the record (again, major spoiler!)

[If he could go to any world from the box, why didn't he just go to a world that already had the quantum technology and explain to them what happened and get them to fix it?]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

51. Memory by Donald E. Westlake

This book set up expectations that I was worried were not going to be fulfilled but then when they weren't, Westlake had taken it into such an unexpected direction that I found profound and though not narratively satisfying, totally enriching.

It starts off right away with a dude in bed with another man's wife and the husband barging in.  The husband swings a chair at the dude and then the dude is in a hospital bed.  Once again, I am glad that I had zero knowledge other than the front cover (which is literally the action that takes place not just in the first page but the second paragraph, so definitely no spoilers).  Somehow the blow has damaged the memory of the protagonist, Paul Cole.  He has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember who he was but also has trouble continuing to remember new things.  We learn from the cop who found him that he was an actor with a touring stage play.  The tour paid his wages and went on without him (the show must go on). The cop has a strong moral position on fidelity and rousts Cole out of town. Cole has barely any money after the hospital bill, can't remember who he was beyond the ID in his wallet and has only some instinct urging him to go to New York, which has the address on his driver's license. He takes a bus as far as he can afford and ends up in some small, poor town called Jeffords.  Here it becomes a question of survival for this guy, who has a few dollars and no memory. 

I will stop at the storyline here, except to say that it begins with a lot of classic elements of Westlake's early works.  It takes place in the early 60s.  There is an expertly depicted small town.  Some menacing characters, including a very low-level loan shark at a tannery and a very nasty police detective.  Because of these elements (well crafted as usual with Westlake, god he is good), I thought we were going in one place.  That place being a crime thriller with the dude's memory as the suspense.  It doesn't go there, but instead explores in a pretty interesting way ideas of identity as well as subtly critiquing the cosmpolitan smugness towards what we know today as flyover states.  It's pretty sad and dark but also so interesting and compelling (and as always written so straightforwardly) that you keep turning the pages. It was copywrite 2010 but I wonder when Westlake actually wrote it.  The theme and sophistication made me think that it was indeed one of his later books.

This isn't the book that Hard Case Crime sells you on the cover and blurb, but it is a pretty damn good book. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

50. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White

Blam, did it.  I am quite happy to have made 50 but not feeling like cheering or resting on my laurels.  The challenge is to keep this up year after year and not flake out and build up a huge debt like I did for the last 4 years.  Also, this was perhaps not the best choice for my 50th book.  I have to admit that I read it almost entirely out of duty and not pleasure.  It was like the toughest part of a marathon.  You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It is ostensibly (at least according to the breathless editors, who seem to dotheth protest too much) the true ending to White's classic The Once and Future King that got partially incorporated into the 4 books series that was actually published but mostly blocked due to wartime shortages and editorial decisions.  It was a decent coda, but most of it was the king as an old man going back to the animal societies he visited as a boy when first starting under Merylyn's tutelage.  Then the animals all argue with Merlyn about various types of statehood and how man compares to other species. If you were looking for a political science debate, this would be a fun one to read.  If you are looking for a conclusion to The Once and Future King, this felt like a lot of repetition.  When it does get to the real narrative ending, it is satisfying but it's only about 30 pages.

I was expecting a story that was really about Merlyn, as he is one of the most interesting characters in the Once and Future King. He is going backwards in time, which would be quite difficult to tell in a book.  I suspect the title was created by the editors and not T.H. White himself for exactly the reason that it would encourage sales.  I lay the blame of my dissatisfaction with this book entirely at the feet of the publishers.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

49. The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee by his wife, Linda

I am a huge Bruce Lee fan.  I would go so far as to say that he is one of my major life influences.  He put me on the path that led me to be the man I am today (for better or for worse).  I first heard about him when I was 8 or 9.  I was part of a crew of little middle-class whiteboy roughnecks running the mean streets of Rockridge in Oakland, California.  We even had a gang name, the Thomas Avenue Terrorists (our symbol was a dagger in a pool of blood), ah, the 70s.  There was a golf course around the block from us and somehow we fell in with this guy who was the caretaker/security guard.  I don't think he lasted very long in the job because he was only around a few weeks (plus we were quite likely the kinds of people he was supposed to be guarding against; we used to wild on that golf course including hiding behind the sand traps and stealing balls as they came on to the green).  Anyhow, one of the times we were hanging out with him behind his bronze sedan, he said "I bet I know somebody you kids are into: Bruce Lee!"  Well, actually I had never heard of him before, but we all pretended like we knew who he was and that we were into him. 

It must have planted a seed because a few years later, after having moved to Vancouver Island, I was a full-on kung fu nerd, trying to suck up as much martial arts books, magazines and videos I could get my hands on.  That was not much at the time.  My friend Mike Tanaka and I used to practice our kung fu kicks on his trampoline (he had much better form than I did) and play all kinds of ninja games.  One of the greatest things ever of my young adolescent life was when the Famous Players theatre at Woodgrove mall had a double bill of Enter the Dragon and The Big Brawl.  This was a mainstream first run classic mall theatre (Arthur was the biggest hit they had and it played for weeks; I still don't understand why that movie was so loved in Nanaimo).  I don't know who was the person responsible for scheduling this double bill, but you did a wonderful thing.  My mom took me and Mike to see it (which also was a wonderful thing).  Mind blown.  I perfected my Bruce Lee growl for hours after that and can still do it quite well today.  Later as a young man I got deep into the Hong Kong movie fandom of the 90s and also did martial arts for pretty much most of my adult life.  I even went to China with one of my schools and visited the Shaolin temple. 

So it was pretty cool to go back and read about Bruce's life from Linda's perspective.  I thought this book was going to be a bit cheesy, but it's really straightforward and seems basically honest.  Linda Lee comes out of a different era and implicit in her love for Bruce was the assumption that she would be the quiet rock who took care of the kids.  She was good at it and their opposite personalities worked well together.  Bruce really seemed to love and depend on her, especially when his fame became so massive that he couldn't even leave the house and couldn't trust that anybody liked him for himself anymore.  She seems like a really solid, intelligent and good person.  You have to feel for her that her husband died tragically just as he was about to launch one of the greatest movies of all time and then loses her son in a film accident nineteen years later.  As they say, it just seems so unfair.  And yes Enter the Dragon is one of the best movies of all time.  Come at me.

Bruce Lee was amazing.  Reading about his life today and he almost seems like a parody of the self-actualizing Hollywood success story.  The truth is that he was insanely gifted, insanely charismatic and insanely motivated.  He called his success years before it happened.  He wrote down things like "I am going to bring Chinese gung fu to America" and "I am going to make x millions of dollars and become the first international asian movie star" years before they happened.  It was also really cool to read about his wild teenage years in Hong Kong.  It reminded me a lot of the opening scenes from Bullet in the Head.  He really was a teenage badass.  He got kicked out of a bunch of high schools and wasn't going to make it into college. Though quite delinquent, even back at that young age he was all about bettering himself and he eventually ended up under the tutelage of Yip Man where he learned Wing Chun.  Because he was born in San Francisco (his dad was a successful opera star and had been touring the U.S.) he had an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.  There, he translated his aggressive teenage self into a super-focused young man, did well enough at a technical high school in Seattle to make it to University of Washington where he met Linda.

Watch and learn:

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

48. The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson

I loved Spider World (though it never really ended properly) and have found Colin Wilson's other works intriguing but sometimes a bit too philosophical.  I suspected that of this book but this cover is absolutely irresistible.  I picked it up at Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver, but I can't remember at which store now that it has become a mini and much deserved empire out there.

The Mind Parasites is written as a non-fiction fiction (there must be a word for this).  It is made up long excerpts from a scientist's journal, with some other excerpts and footnotes added here and there to fill out points or bring an added perspective.  In effect, because it is mostly one long excerpt by Professor Gilbert Austin, it becomes basically a story with Austin as its narrator.  He has made a fantastic discovery on an archeological dig in Turkey, a massive structure built under the earth that is evidence of civilizations long before previously thought.  It is explicitly Lovecraftian and the professor posits that Lovecraft's fiction was actually recountings of true visions he was having.  However, it's all a feint, because in his exploration of these ruins, he discovers something else inside his own mind: faint hints of some parasitical species.  He further discovers that these species have been in humanity's mind for the last 200 years and worse are responsible for our inability to evolve past stupid, warring behaviours.

It's kind of a pulp action book where most of the exciting action, at least in the first half, takes place in Austin's mind as he explores deeper while trying not to alert the parasites to his awareness of them.  He recruits other like-minded scientists and the war begins.  It gets pretty ambitious and crazy and is preposterous and a lot of fun.  It's very appealing to think of all the shit going down today and the stupidity and greed of the elites in the world and how it all could be attributable to a parasite that is feeding off our life energy but keeps us stunted enough that we won't discover their existence.  The only thing that I didn't really jibe with was the idea that somehow up until the end of the 18th century, our great thinkers were unfettered and positive and then somehow everything got shitty because we realized there was no God.  That is the parallel that Wilson makes.  He seems really down on 19th century western culture, but I don't know enough about that history to really be critical. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

47. Corentyne Thunder by Edgar Mittelholzer

Picked this up at a Polish Church bazaar.  It's literature!  I'm very impressed with myself.

Corentyne Thunder was written in 1938, Mittelholzer's first book but published after he had somewhat established himself as a Caribbean writer.  It takes place in British Guiana and is the story of a very poor farmer and his two daughters.  They are literally dirt-poor, having only one set of cloths, living in a mud hut and earning money by selling milk from their cows.  The father, Ramgolall, is a coolie of East Indian descent who came over first as an indentured servant, until he bought himself out and was able to establish a small bit of land and some cows.  Despite their very tough existence, they are basically happy.  Interestingly, his daughter from a previous marriage ended up marrying the wealthy, educated cow baron who had been wooing her when she was young and pretty and now her children are being raised educated and comfortable.  So there is an incredible range of class and education in their small world in colonial Guiana.  Race is added somewhat to the mix with black and white characters, but they are mostly on the fringe.

The story itself has an overall narrative arc, but really the enjoyment in this book is learning about their daily lives, the interaction between them and their wealthier relatives and the society in general in Guiana in this period.  I love this kind of stuff.  Written very directly with no unnecessary tension or drama, the text envelopes you in its world.  Sad stuff happens, but it is all very benevolent, compared to what you might think about most colonial writing.  Mittelholzer himself was not a happy man, suffering because he was of mixed black and white race and I do not think anyone would consider his work an apology for colonialism.  It is my own bias of knowing people from the South Caribbean of Indian descent who generally seem quite happy with their lot in life. That is a similar vibe I got from this book, that while there was great inequality, it didn't seem to impact the day-to-day happiness of the people and it felt that there was opportunity for education and the possibility of a family lineage bettering itself.  Again, it's not written as if everything was hunky-dory.  Their lives are portrayed as quite exhausting and physically uncomfortable and there are small injustices and bad behaviours by those in power.  In general, though, the characters happiness is not a function of their station in life and the interaction between the races and class levels has that relaxed Caribbean vibe that makes for a very pleasant read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

46. Thongor at the End of Time by Lin Carter

So this now is the fourth Thongor book I've read and the last of the set I found at Chainon.  I've now read 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the 6 in total, not counting Young Thongor that came out in 2012 .  The series had been a bit of a slog for me but I am pleased to say that Thongor Against the Gods was actually quite a lot of fun.  There was barely any exposition of past events this time and a much tighter storyline and cast of characters. 

Thongor is now king, married to beautiful Sumia with a strapping son named Thar.  One of the magicians we thought he had killed from Thongor and the City of Magicians had of course survived and was now secretly plotting to get his revenge. At the beginning of the book, Thongor is killed quite suddenly and soon after the queen secludes herself from all her loyalists and sets up this fat, decadent merchant to be in power.  Of course the magician is behind it all and we get two cool storylines: Thongor in the land of the dead and his son and trusted lieutenant on the run with a bunch of pirates.  I particularily enjoyed the pirate storyline.  It was the kind of fantasy setting, that while not original at all, was rich on colourful characters and maritime camarederie.  The return to the city of pirates was a great moment, with the captain striding through the streets of revellers to his favourite tavern. 

I realized as I was reading this that it wasn't just the cliched fantasy tropes that were distancing me from really getting deep into the narrative.  It's also that Carter uses so many adjectives!  I realize that it requires quite a lot of parsing down for my mind to grasp the actual narrative meaning of his sentences and that tires me out and makes my thoughts wander.  Here is a prime example:
Over all the thronged and crowded streets with their jostling, drunken, quarrelsome horde, over all the smokey inns and ale houses, above the narrow roofs and peaked gables, brooded the dark citadel that crowned the crest of the cliffs and thrust squat towers against the storm-dark skies where few stars flashed.
I literally had to re-read this sentence three times before I realized it was trying to tell me that there was a dark citadel brooding over the pirate town.  I appreciate the colourfulness of the descriptions, but he goes way too far.  I also learned that Carter is a very skilled writer and that this style choice is deliberate.  At the end of this book, there is a short essay where he explains the historical sources that inspired Thongor and the world of Lemuria and it is extremely well-written, clear and direct, but not simplistic.

I'm glad I made it this far and while reading the last book I was telling myself I would be done after this one, but I think I will now keep my eye open for the last in the series Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

45. Duncton Wood by William Horwood

I have been exercising my reading muscles significantly in the last few months, but I am not sure I was quite ready for a 750+ page fantasy epic, even if it is about moles in Britain.  I was able to read it consistently and finish it in over a week.  However, I found it a bit of a slog at the end and there were passages where I found myself skimming or drifting off in my thoughts.

Duncton Wood had been on my list for ages (The Farthing Woods books being the other animals in Britain stories that continue to elude me).  I found it finally at least a year ago, but the damn thing was so thick that it sat on my shelf all this time collecting dust, intimidating me.  With my new found reading energy and commitment to clearing off my on-deck shelf, the time finally came and I jumped in.

Duncton Wood is the epic story of a community of moles and the heroic journey of two of them to deliver it from evil and back to the spiritual connection with its past, as represented by the great stone.  I won't go into the storyline because I am averse to any spoilers and part of the pleasure is discovering how it all plays out.  I mean, either you want to read an epic tale of mole fable or you don't.  Nothing I say hear is really going to change your mind.  It is good.  I can definitely say that.  The imposition of a civilized social order on the biological reality of mole existence is really cool and though much of it is invented, their base behaviour feels very realistic (and an afterword that gives an overview of real moles makes it clear that most of it is realistic).  For instance, much of the questing and learning by one of the protagonists is how he develops his tunnel exploring and then construction skills.  He learns how sound works in tunnels so that he can identify locations by them (and build his own that take advantage of that).  There are great descriptions of the diverse environments of the British countryside from a mole's perspective.  There is also hot mole sex (and sometimes awful mole violation), mole combat and even mole kung-fu training.

I am sure this book is known and well-respected, though I imagine there is a generation of nerds out there who should discover this for themselves.  Personally, I can say that it wasn't entirely too my taste.  It's pretty rough, almost too much bad stuff happens for me to have truly enjoyed (I'm soft as you probably can tell by now).  The two protagonists and especially Bracken, the male, spend a lot of time being bummed out or angry and it started to bum me out.  By the end, the story is complex and the author skilled enough that you understand why, so I point this out as a matter of personal preference rather than critique. 

If you consider fantasy your genre, Duncton Wood should probably be on your list. However, holy crap I see there are 5 more sequels.  I am not sure I am quite up to that level of completion.

[POSTSCRIPT for those who have read the book, still pretty much spoiler free]
I also note here that I am suspect of the behaviour of Rebecca towards her father Mandrake.  I get that she is a healer and their love was a complex thing and part of the complexity of her character, but I do not think a female author would have ever written it in this way and it felt very off given the way our society is finally (I hope) evolving to undersand and condemn the role of sexual violence in our culture.  I am speaking very obliquely to avoid spoilers, but when you read it you will see what I am talking about.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

44. The Man on the Bench in the Barn by Georges Simenon

Funny story about this one, I was wandering through various back roads in the area of PEI where we often spend our summer vacation and discovered a rental cabins place where the office had a big "Books" sign on it.  I went in and there was the typical vacation cabins office but very few books, only three ground level shelves.  I went through them nonetheless and discovered this hardback which had originally been from either the Town of Mississauga library or Clarkson-Lorne Park (or both or they are the same thing) based on stickers and stamps on the inside.  It is a first edition but in really bad shape.  The proprietor told me they used to have tons of books, shelves up and down all the walls but that they stopped selling so he had boxed them up.  I wished I had a chance to go through those, but he didn't say where he had put them.  He also did a search for this book and found somebody selling the same first edition on the internet for $21.45.  I pushed back on the state of the book but I could see he was feeling like I was trying to put one over on him, so I gave in easy and gave him $20 for it.  Way overpriced, but the value worked for me at the time.  Still, I carry a slight sense of annoyance with the guy.  You could just tell he was one of those cheap vendors who refuse to discount any stock even though it doesn't move because he thinks he can get the face value for it.

Anyhow, on to the book itself.  Simenon is an amazing writer.  I really need to try and read one of his novels in french.  If the translations of his books are good and his french is as straightforward and short-sentenced as his books in english are, I should be able to read them fairly easily.  He is removed from the situation but at the same time somehow captures the psychology of the broken men that are so often his protagonists.  Here, it is Donald Dodd, small town upper middle class Connecticut lawyer, respected but humble. He goes to a big holiday party put on by a rich guy in his area with his wife and another couple.  On the way back, they get stuck in a serious blizzard and have to walk the last mile home.  Ray, the other husband and ostensibly Donald's best friend gets separated from them and is not there when they finally make it back to the house.  Donald goes out to try and find him and instead of actually looking, goes and sits in his barn and smokes cigarettes, knowing he is basically leaving Ray to die.

His action (or inaction) is partly due to physical cowardice but it's also something deeper and that is what the rest of the novel reveals.  He starts to question his life and poke holes in his past behaviour.  I won't go into details and it's all very subtle.  The first half was really great.  The second half kept on the same subtle pacing and made it less explosively entertaining for me but still really interesting and engaging.  You kind of hate the guy but you totally understand him.  Simenon just nails that new england upper middle class self-loathing and anomie of this period.  Good stuff.

Monday, October 16, 2017

43. The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon

I think I may be out on Theodore Sturgeon.  After finishing this collection of his short stories, I went back and read my past reviews of Sturgeon's works.  I really enjoyed The Dreaming Jewels, but I think he is just too much of a theoretical sci-fi author for me, sacrificing story for teasing out his ideas and concepts, most of which I don't find all that interesting.

This anthology, for instance,  had several stories that dealt with human psychology and technology that allowed scientists and psychiatrists to test out Sturgeon's wild theories on human psychology.  They all feel very dated, which is not a sin and of itself.  It's just that the '50s and psychology are kind of a particularly noxious mix, at least for me.  On top of that, the actual human relations that are in these stories feel really forced and artificial.  Love, in Sturgeon's world, seems super melodramatic.  He also seems to have a bit of an issue with being cuckolded, as that comes up in at least three of the stories here.

I apologize for belittling somebody who has contributed so much to the field ("Live long and prosper" being his line among other things) and who seems like an interesting and possibly quite good person.  He wants to understand why humans go to war, why we are so emotionally imperfect and he does a lot of interesting things exploring these themes.  His writing just doesn't work for me and these stories were a particular slog.

On a side note, there is a story in here, The Skills of Xanadu, about a super advanced humanity that is visited by another powerful (but less so) invader scout.  Though these people live in total harmony with freedom to do whatever they want, the women still are responsible for serving the food!  Sturgeon seemed like a very progressive thinker.  His novel Venus Plus X is about a species with a single gender.  He supposedly snuck in some homosexual subtext in an episode of Star Trek.  And yet even he cannot see beyond the dominant nuclear family heterosexual construct.  At first, I felt very critical of him, but upon further reflection it really makes you realize how powerful and fundamental these social constructs can be when you are inside of them.  If only 50 years ago, it was impossible for a science fiction writer to conceive of a future of humanity where women were not primarily responsible for homemaking, what rigid dogma are we today still stuck in?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

42. High Citadel by Desmond Bagley

Now this is what I am talking about.  This is how you write a manly adventure novel.  I was a huge Desmond Bagley fan in my adolescent years after my dad turned me on to him (I think it might have actually been this novel).  The last time I had read a Desmond Bagley novel was High Citadel for the second or third time while hiking through Torres del Paine park in Chile in 1996.  So it's been over 20 years.  Though I was looking forward to re-reading this, I was also nervous that I would find it lacking and be disappointed.

Well either I have not evolved at all as a critical reader (quite likely) or Desmond Bagley is just a kickass writer (or both) as I found myself to have thoroughly enjoyed High Citadel.  It has a few flaws, notably the simplistic conservative politics.  Otherwise, it is arguably a near-Platonic ideal of the late 20th century masculine adventure novel.  Being a little less hyperbolic, I would say that it is a tight, thrilling and imaginative story with a driving structure that really doesn't let up.

The protagonist is Tim O'hara, burnt-out alchoholic pilot flying over the Andes for a shitty airline.  He gets woken up for a late night emergency flight to take a bunch of passengers from a grounded airline to the capital of fictonal Cordillero.  His greasy, lazy co-pilot Grivas is acting weird and gets really weird when over a mountain pass he pulls a gun on O'Hara and forces him to land on a mountain runway.  The plane crashes and O'Hara and the surviving passengers find out that one of them is the ex-president of Cordillera who was secretly returning to trigger a revolution to overthrow the general who staged a coup against him.  Grivas was part of a plot by communist infiltrators to prevent him from returning.

And here is what makes this novel so great.  Oddly, there is nobody at this hidden mountain runway and when the passengers make their beleagured way down the old mining road, they come to a gorge with a single bridge on it. On the other side of the gorge are trucks and a bunch of soldiers. The sole bridge crossing the gorge has been damaged by the first truck that tried to cross it and now they can't get across.  The rest of the book is the survivors, led by O'Hara trying to hold off the soldiers from repairing the bridge.  They are a mixed bag of tourists, businessmen, the ex-president and his beautiful niece and O'Hara.  They have a single pistol among them, taken from the plane, with 12 bullets in it and bits of pieces of leftover equipment from the abandoned mine, as well as supplies the soldiers had left earlier.  I won't go into any detail about the creativity they use to try and survive, but will say that a medieval history professor turns out to be one of their most valuable assets.
The politics do bear mentioning.  The communists are portrayed as cruel and incompetent and it is assumed that the CIA are good guys and the ex-president simply wants liberty and business for his country.  You could very easily read this book as subtle imperialistic propaganda except that the real values here are not political at all but rather the redemption of a man when given the opportunity to fight and find a real woman.

A note on the trade dress.  I really love the design of these Fontana Desmond Bagleys.  There is a whole series and something about the illustration over the cream background and the typeface really works for me.  I would love to have the entire set. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

41. New Worlds of Fantasy #2 edited by Terry Carr

I generally avoid short stories, for many reasons, mainly that they are too all over the place in anthologies and rarely leave me satisfied. I found this one at Chainon and it had some good names and was a nice looking book, so I made an exception to the rule.  Each story has a neat little horizontal illustration at the top of the page that I found quite pleasing.  They were done Kelly Freas, who also did the cover (which I like less not because of the execution but the mode, silver-age abstraction of which I am not a huge fan).  I wish I could show you some but that would entail opening the book flat and the spine already cracked when I got to the end.

Overall, I found this anthology to be light, with a few bright spots.  Carr's intro did little to excite me, being pretty generic with a softball attempt to defend the genre of fantasy, which honestly isn't even well-represented here, the stories being more odd or supernatural than actual fantasy.  There was a lot of melancholy and those subtle ghost stories where nobody gets killed or anything.

There was one that really stood out for me, though, and that was The Scarlet Lady by Keith Roberts.  I wonder if Stephen King had read this, as it is basically Christine written 20 years earlier and taking place in England.  A mechanic's brother buys this massive old luxury vehicle that seems a nightmare from the beginning because it is so hard to get parts for, but then becomes a nightmare for real as it starts to rear off the road to mow down dogs, cats, cows and eventually humans.  The brother gets crazier and crazier as well, sneaking out to the garage at night to polish the car and stare at it.  This was a lot of fun.

Monday, October 09, 2017

40. Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard

This is a paperback anthology first printed in 1975 is a collection of Howard's short stories featuring Bran Mak Morn.  It's similar to Tigers of the Sea, which was released in the same format by Zebra.  They are illustrated and I think may have some value as they are both first printings.  They just aren't that good looking on the outside.  The art is vague and the typefaces a mess.

Anyhow, onto  the story.  Bran Mak Morn is a pict in northwestern Britain of Roman times.  They are embattled on all sides, a dying race.  Howard loves these guys.  There are only a few stories, so you get snippets of Bran's life.  He does manage to unite the scattered Pict tribes until his death.  He's a badass, like all Howard's heroes.  His skills lean towards subterfuge and craftiness.  These stories are overall much more supernatural than the Cormac Mac Art collection.  And overall I preferred them.

Howard is obsessed with racial origins and how they determine character.  It gets to be a bit much in these stories.  I think because of all the invading peoples (Romans, Saxons, Gaels, Britons, Vikings, etc.) Howard can really get into their various characteristics.  It is hard to call it consistently racist, though it gets pretty close at times.

I seem to have stumbled upon the theme of the middle ages in my reading this fall.  I think I may actually be learning something.  I can't get any of it straight, but now I have an overall better sense of England's origins.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

39. Shovelling Trouble by Mordecai Richley

I'm a big fan of Mordecai Richler and I am glad I read this collection of his essays from the late '60s to remind me.  He is smart, insightful and just so skeweringly funny.  He also pulls no punches.  I feel he reflects the best of our Canadian culture of criticism, in his directness.

The best one here is his essay on the James Bond books and Fleming himself.  He rips both apart.  It's pretty convincing actually.  I've read three or four of the Bond novels and they never did anything for me.  Richler helped me understand why.  He writes about hanging out in Paris with American artistic expats in the '50s, ongoing anti-semitism in the world, writing, Canadian culture (spot on).

Also, a beautiful paperback in great condition that I got free from I can't remember where.

Friday, October 06, 2017

38. The Once and Future King by T. H. White

This book is a bit above my pay grade.  I grabbed it free somewhere because it was one of those so comfortable Fontana paperbacks from the '80s and the title struck some distant chord in my memory.  I thought I was getting into a filled-out retelling of the Arthurian myth, which is exactly what it is, except not at all in the style that I expected.  I understand now that this book was a pretty huge hit when it came out and possibly one of the more important contributors to our contemporary understanding of the Knights of the Round Table.

What really threw me is that right from the beginning, the writing style is irreverent, almost flippant.  It reminded me of the British tradition of taking the piss out of things.  White makes a real effort to make Merlyn seem muddled (though still powerful) and there are long sections devoted to making questing knights seems like the twits of Monty Python.  It is also anachronistic, both in the story itself, because Merlyn is going backwards in time and makes constant references to things that haven't happened yet, especially the rise of fascism and in the meta-text because the narrator uses modern factors to build metaphors, like knights as cricket stars.  It's very jarring but then becomes quite fun.  The portrayal of magic is really cool as well, both utterly fantastic (Merlyn transforms Arthur into various animals as part of his education) and grounded (the hunting birds are rigorously mannered).

It's actually 4 books that later got put together into this single volume.  The first part is about Arthur's upbringing leading up to him pulling the sword out of the stone (which is a deliberate anti-climax).  The second, almost an interlude, introduces the secondary characters like Gawaine and his brothers, at a young age.  The third book is all about Lancelot, the love triangle between him Arthur and Guinevere and ultimately about Arthur's attempt to impose the rule of Right rather than Might on Britain.  The fourth book is it all coming undone.

And that is the main theme of the book.  It takes the piss out of the weight of the middle ages and then ultimately raises Arthur up as this deeply heroic figure not because of wars won but because of an extremist idealism to make England and ultimately the Christian world into a place that was ruled by justice, a modernized code of chivalry.  In effect, he reinforces the idea of the myth of Arthur as the father of Britain and takes it to an even greater level.  All the books were written around World War II and the spectre of fascism and Hitler's rise to power is explicit, especially in the last book.  White philosophizes deeply via Arthur's thoughts as an old king, failing to maintain his ethos in his kingdom about why man must constantly fall back into Might.

So it's a deep book, but along the way a lot of fun.  Another theme here is that White clearly loves the middle ages and he takes pains to show how rich and complex life was back then.  He doesn't shy from its brutality (and it gets brutal at points), but he does enrichen the culture, industry, crafting and thinking of the time that definitely worked on this reader.

Good stuff, definitely should be read by every nerd.

Friday, September 29, 2017

37. Lost Race of Mars by Robert Silverberg

I can't remember where I picked this up.  I know that Robert Silverberg is a fairly prolific sci-fi author and have never read anything by him.  Lost Race of Mars is a Scholastic book, written for late elementary school kids and probably something I would have dug back then.  I was hoping to get a teeny taste for Silverberg and more importantly a bit of insight into the kind of sci-fi schoolkids would be reading in 1960 when it was published.

The Chambers are the classic '50s nuclear family, father is a scientist, mother is a homemaker and Sally and Jim keen brother and sister.  The year is 2017 and earth has a colony on Mars.  Dr. Chambers (the dad) receives a grant to go and study there for a year. There is evidence that there was an ancient race on Mars but most people believe them to be long dead.  There are plants, animals and a bit of water, even thin oxygen (either Silverberg was fudging it for a kids book or they really did not have much knowledge about the solar system back then).  When the family gets there, they do not receive a friendly welcome.  The ethos is one of hard work and practicality and they are seen as freeloaders, using up precious oxygen and resources and not contributing anything tangible.  The father struggles to get the equipment he needs.  The children are particularly mean and Sally and Jim find themselves ostracized.  They decide to sneak out on their own to see if they can find the martians.

It's a fun, quick little read, simplistic and not super realistic.  I will slip it into my daughter's shelf and maybe she will chance upon it one day in the future (assuming we aren't dragging a sled with our bare necessities across the wasteland).  I will be curious to see what she thinks about it.

Here is a nice blog post giving a bit of history on the book and reference material on Silverberg and the illustrator, Leanard Kessler.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

36. West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn

Lost in the mists of time is the source of my original reason for adding Edgar Pangborn's Davy to my paperback hunting list I keep in my wallet.  I found West of the Sun in Victoria and though it wasn't Davy, it is the first Edgar Pangborn I had found, so I decided to buy it.  I read it and respected, but not sure if I should keep Davy on my list.

Based on this single novel, I feel I can say that Pangborn is a good writer, intelligent and thoughtful.  However, I am not sure if he is really to my style.  The story take place in the early 21st century. Earth sends out an exploratory ship and the book begins when that ship finds a livable planet  Unfortunately the ship crashes and the crew has to consider living there forever.  It is divided into 3 parts: the initial landing. 1 year later and 10 years later.  It reminded me a lot of Earth Abides.  Much of the story is interacting with the local flora and fauna and meeting the intelligent life (of which there are two kinds, cannibalistic warrior pigmies and super chill solitary ape creatures).  Much of, though, is about the crew themselves and how they are going to try and start a new human society while interacting with and developing the existing creatures.

The Prime Directive is definitely violated here, as they bring language and tools and just generally make a massive impact on the part of the planet they landed on.  It's an interesting story and a thoughtful exploration of what would be the challenges of landing on and surviving in another world.  There is also, unfortunately for me, a lot of long conversations about theories of civlization, much of it in that weird early 60s language that always seems trying to hard to be poetic and clever.  I found it particularly annoying that when the natives learn english, they speak it like some upper middle class housewife in a John D. MacDonald suburban thriller.  Basically, the ratio of story and characters to ideas about society was way too low for me.

These are my pet peeves and I will still keep an eye out for Davy, but I waver.

Monday, September 25, 2017

35. Balconville a play by David Fennario

A friend gave me this play for my birthday and it has been sitting on my shelf for a few years.  It's a real artifact from the anglo-Canadian scene during the height of the struggle for independence in Quebec.  Well that's what it takes place, but it was written in 1980, so about ten years later, but the issues were certainly still going on in this form back then.

The play takes place in Pointe-St-Charles, a neighbourhood on the other side of the canal from downtown Montreal, one of the earliest working class neighbourhoods and also a place where a lot of the social spirit of Quebec and Montreal was started.  The play is set in facing balconies, with two anglophone families on one side and a francophone family on the other.  Most of what goes on is street life among the working class people, in french and english: angry teenage daughter, alchoholic unemployed boyfriend, simply delivery guy, tired wives and so on.  It's quite entertaining and would probably be quite fun to see live.  There is no innate conflict between the french and english, but as the play goes on and when there is conflict about other things, it quite quickly leads to blaming the other side.

It all is leading up to a pretty obvious political sentiment, which is made explicit at the climactic ending when the actors turn to the audience and say "What are we going to do?" in french and english.  The answer is obvious in the text, which is stop fighting amongst yourselves and unite to fight the real enemy, the wealthy and the politicians.

I like the sentiment and I generally agree with it, but I can also see how a francophone audience at the time might not take it so positively.  This is a very similar kind of dynamic as to what is going on now in the States with all this talk about the poor white people in the flyover states being neglected by the left.  Yes, it sucks for everybody who is poor.  It sucks even worse to be poor and in a cultural minority.  This is something the resentful anglophones never really understood (and to this day you still hear them complain of the discrimination against them here as if the bureaucracy in B.C. or Ontario is somehow super effective and well-managed).  So it feels a bit naive and optimistic for Fennario to think that the two solitudes are going to unite while all the advantages were still structurally geared towards english speakers.  It's telling that this play has only performed in English theatres (at least according to the book; it may have shown elsewhere since then). 

The other interesting thing is that Pointe St-Charles is gentrifying pretty quickly and the people that make up the characters in this play are slowly disappearing from that neighbourhood.  It will take a while still but already the struggle and hardships depicted in this play are disappearing (or more likely moving away) and along with them a lot of the spirit and culture here too, to be replaced by professional families who organize "playdates" and worry about safety.

34. Thongor in the City of Magicians

More Thongor!  I am reading these because I found a pretty nice set of old British paperbacks at Chainon.  Unfortunately, it didn't include the one before this one (Thongor against the Gods, I believe), so I missed another most certainly epic chapter in Thongor's domination of all things vile in Lemuria.  Lin Carter is very conscious of this possibly happening as much of the start of Thongor in the City of Magicians is a recap of all of Thongor's previous adventures, as well as listing out all the secondary characters and the political situation.  The problem is there is a ton of secondary characters and their names all sound the same and they are all exemplaries of their brand of heroism and manliness.  Likewise with the various cities.  It's very hard to distinguish between them all.  This is real nerdery here.  Probably had I read these when I was into this stuff, I would have written it all out, drawn maps and so on.  In my late 40s, it becomes a real slog.

When you finally get through all that, the story does get quite fun.  This time, we learn about the source of all the nasty druids and alchemists who had been taking over the good cities.  It's the city of Zaar, far to the south of Lemuria, run by nine evil wizards and surrounded by black marble walls (that also hold back the crashing waves of the Pacific).  Thongor and his people head in that direction to mine some precious stones filled with sun energy and of course he gets captured.  Lots of ass-kicking ensues and great descriptions of corrupt magic and its practitioners.

This book really emphasizes that Lemuria is from earth's past and will sink into the ocean.  It even suggests that the continent has been weakened by all the meddling with dark magics, a bit of a climate change metaphor from back in the day.

Finishing this, I also realized that maybe Carter adds all the nerdery to pad the book out, because it's barely a novel as is and would almost be more of a short story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

33. The Levanter by Eric Ambler

I went through a big re-read of Eric Ambler's pre-WWII books and really enjoyed them.  My memory of his post-WWII books were less positive and I wasn't so enthused to jump into this book. I think I was concerned that they would be suffer from that weird 70s masculinity of that generation of British writers.  I also suspected they may be have been a bit too subtle for my younger mind.

I am happy to report, that at least with the Levanter, my concerns were entirely unfounded.  I do see why my younger self didn't find it quite as thrilling as say Desmond Bagley or Michael Gilbert.  It's the richness of the detail, the complexity of character, the description of region that are all done so well that make this book so great.  It also has a slow, simmering tension that really grabs onto you and forces you to keep turning the pages to find out what happens.  I think, though, that all of those positive aspects are more effective with an older reader.  There are pages and pages, for instance, of the history of a family company in the mediterranean.  I soaked it up, but I could see others thinking it was boring.

The structure is also interesting.  At it's core, The Levanter has a simple plot.  A businessman in the middle east is forced to participate in a terrorist plot and has to use his wits to prevent it, save himself, his mistress and his business.  However, it takes a while for the reader to figure it out, as it begins in the future and jumps between the viewpoints of said businessman and a journalist and seems, at first, to be more about a well-known lesser Palestinian terrorist.  Once the structure settles down and you stick with the businessman's narrative, you, as I said above, really get stuck in. He accidently discovers that one of his night watchmen is this terrorist leader and has been using his battery factory to build his devices and train his men.  The terrorist then forces him to join them and the rest of the book is his attempt to find a way out.

Really great stuff.  The businessman himself, though named Michael Howell, is really a mutt of the colonial middle east, English from three generations back but now mixed with Turkish and Greek Cypriot blood, educated in British public schools but fluent in Arabic, Greek and a few other languages.  He's a great character, privileged and a bit smarmy but also skilled and competent.  There is implicit bias here, for sure.  All the middle eastern characters are either terrorists, manipulative civil servants or cruel policemen.  Even the Israelis are demonstrated as being difficult.  The only truly reasonable people are the protagonist, his mistress and an American journalist.  We will see if this bias plays out in other Ambler books. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

32. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

My brother-in-law got me this last xmas and I had put it away for a time when I was ready for some good, modern sci-fi.  I actually got started on it this Spring, but couldn't get into it. In my current new reading resurgence, I jumped right in.  On the back of the book, the blurb says it is hard science fiction.  I think that is a mischaracterization.  It's definitely high-level, with some technical ideas that require a bit of understanding (like public private key encryption).  I would consider it more transhuman.  We are out in space with quantum nanotechnology that allows people to take over different bodies and space battles that are complex combinations of nuclear firepower and code attacks.

It takes a while to figure out what is going on.  The protagonist is a thief who gets sprung from a space jail where he keeps having to engage in a prisoner's dilemma with the other prisoners (and keeps dying).  A space warrior chick working for a goddess needs him to do a mission on Oubliette, which is the civilization on Mars.  Things there are really complicated and I won't even go into it, suffice it to say that it's pretty cool if you are into that kind of thing.

I'm just a little old and lazy now and while I appreciate the author not explaining a lot of things, it also made it harder to get into.  In the end, I think I more or less figured out the major plot.  Stories where technology is so advanced can sometimes lack emotional connection with the characters, especially when they are constantly rewriting their own identities and memories.  I found that to be the case here.  Nonetheless, the situation and tech was so cool that I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it turns out to be a trilogy and probably one I will have to eventually seek out (at which point I will have most likely forgotten what happened in the first book.  Sigh.)

[Completely irrelevant side note: the title of this book is accurate and it makes me think of another title that totally bugs the shit out of me, the movie Quantum of Solace.  What the fuck does that even mean?  I don't dislike Daniel Craig but his Bonds are probably the worst of them all and that stupid, meaninglessly pretentious title perfectly exemplifies why.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

31. Tigers of the Sea by Robert E. Howard

I believe it was Cormac Mac Art that my friend Jason first discovered way back in the day when we were nerdy teenagers and told me that there were characters other than Conan written by Howard.  It was quite a revelation at the time!  However, I never actually read anything other than Conan in all these years, so I was glad to find this book (and a Bran Mak Morn one as well to be read soon) at my local thrift store.

There are good and bad elements about reading a series of pulp stories about the same character.  It's cool to have it as a historical artifact and its very existence is thanks to Richard L. Tierney.  He put the collection together and had it published in 1975. He also wrote a very helpful introduction that is a survey of all the various characters that Howard created in old Europe and how they connect together in various historical periods.  I would have liked a bit more detail on the actual publication dates and sources, but the history is really helpful to ground the stories and give you clues to hunt down his other books.

On the other hand, there is a certain sameness to three of the stories here.  Cormac Mac Art is a badass Erin warrior who has travelled and warred all over the post-Roman British isles who is also very clever.  Each story has him and his pirate chief Wulfere sneaking into some enemy camp, either with physical subterfuge or in disguise, getting involved in some greater conflict, kicking a ton of ass and then getting out with the booty.  The ass-kicking is rip-roaring, heavy physical stuff (gigantic axes smashing through helms kind of thing) which I really enjoy.  After two stories of it, though, one needs a bit of a break.  It pains me to write this but I was even slightly bored at a couple points (sorry, sorry, Robert E. Howard).  It's like three pot roasts in a row.  Ideally, you have had a shitty day at work dealing with the whinging and the incompetent and you go home, have an ale and read one of these stories about how one really deals with lesser men to get your head straight again.

The last story, "The Temple of Abomination" was not completed and was a breath of fresh air from all the vikings and their stockades, with an ancient dark druid and the fetid, corrupt creatures he commands. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

30. First on the Moon by Jeff Sutton

Golden Age sci-fi is not totally my bag.  I can't remember where I got this book but I really liked the bold, colourful cover and it was in good condition.  I thought it was going to be a fantastic gee-whiz space story, but it is actually much more akin to a hard sci-fi attempt to realistically imagine in 1958 what a race to the moon would look like.

It takes place during the height of the cold war and is told from the perspective of an elite pilot brought into a top secret training program.  Paranoia is everywhere, to the point that he is pulled from his last date before launch because two previous pilots were killed in staged accidents.  He and his date are replaced with doubles (whom we later learn are also killed).  He is then led to the real rocket (the one he had been training on turns out to have been a duplicate to further fool the enemy) and meets his crew of three.  It's a tense, steady read.  A bit dry at times, but with enough suspense and even some characterization to keep me hooked.  They go to the moon, have to deal with all the very real issues of survival there as well as the commies who do all kinds of dastardly things.  They send a missile while they are in flight, they send another rocket themselves.  The whole point is that the country that first establishes a succesful person on the moon gets to claim it for their own in the eyes of the UN.  Once on the planet, the commander also learns that one of his men is a double agent who is sabotaging the mission.

It kind of felt like what I imagine The Martian was like, but from a 1958 perspective.  Jeff Sutton did many things in his life (including writing quite a few science fiction novels), among them working on survival issues for high-altitude pilots, so he knew his stuff.  Solid read.

Monday, September 11, 2017

29. The Case of the Vanishing Boy by Alexander Key

When I was a kid in elementary school, Escape from Witch Mountain came out.  I'm still not sure if it was a movie or a TV special, but everybody was talking about it.  I somehow saw at least an image from it and remember having a powerful crush on the girl.  I never did see it.  We didn't have TV and for some reason it never got on my parents' radar, but like a lot of media that I didn't see, I pretended that I had to be part of the conversation (Mad Magazine parodies were the best for this).

I don't remember where I found this book, but I thought I should check it out.  I wouldn't be surprised if there is some small re-discovery of Key's work, because this stuff falls squarely in the same genre as the successful Stranger Things series on Netflix.  Adolescent kids with powers who discover malfeasance among nasty, scientific adults and have to deal with it mostly on their own.  In this case, there are also some good adults, who are of course, self-consciously non-conformist. 

This is actually Key's last book (he died in 1979).  The story here is about Jan, a boy who wakes up on a commuter train with no memory of who he is or where he came from but that he is running.  He meets a blind girl on the train who spots him as somebody in trouble and the adventure begins (or continues).  I really enjoyed the in media res beginning.  I sort of figured most of the mystery out (minus the details) quite quickly.  It's a tight read, quite thrilling and enjoyable with real stakes and action.  I will see if my 12-year old nephew finds it interesting.  I think I would like to check out Escape from Witch Mountain and maybe even the original movie, just so I can talk about it without making stuff up.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

28. Thongor of Lemuria

Part two of the Thongor saga, which is not always easy to know as the titles all kind of sound the same.  I need at some point to make a reference list.  The first one is called The Wizard of Lemuria and the second Thongor of Lemuria and on the back of the edition I have, where they list the other titles, they don't specify if they are in order (and they call it "the saga of Thongor of Lemuria" but that isn't the name of the first book, argh!).  I remember as a young nerd in the late '70s and early '80s how it was so hard to find out any info on things (like which Star Trek episode came from which season, or what all the Star Wars cards were and so on).  On the one hand, this lack of information probably is what gives me my book-hunting drive today.  On the other, it seems damned lazy and cheap by the publishers at the time, who knew they were marketing to anal-retentive nerds and should have given us the data we needed.

Anyhow, this is another chapter in Thongor's ass-kicking life.  It starts off immediately after where the last one left off, with Thongor, the hot babe Sumia and his less extraordinary but still capable soldier friend Karm Karvus on the airship.  They hit an electrical storm and fall into the ocean and all kinds of shit happens.  It starts out at first with them being on an unknown jungle isle, fighting local flora, fauna and primitives, but we quite quickly get back to the bigger geopolitical plot of decadent, evil men taking over kingdoms and cities and fucking with Thongor.

Like the first book, at first I was a bit bored and found it all too simplistic and derivative and then things got quite weird and excessive and I was once again in for the ride.  I do find disappointing the depiction of the jungle savages.  It's not quite as blatantly racist as Howard, but still has the boring trope that being primitive means not only being less civilized but also arbitrarily crueler and genetically inferior.  Plus, they are dark and apelike.  I get the sexism in these books, written in 1966, but you think Lin Carter might have been just slightly more aware than the pulp writers of the thirties.  Sentences like "Scores of the shaggy Beastmen and their unlovely mates and equally repulsive cubs crawled from the huts to watch the procession" bum me out.  I'm not expecting a post-colonial deconstruction of the native "other" here, just maybe a bit more sense that a bunch of natives living in the jungle might actually have a reason for doing what they are doing.

The more civilized badguys in this book are, on the other hand, quite entertaining and creative and their evil is due to their own character flaws (greed, ambition, etc.) rather than any innate genetic characteristics.  The torturer whose body is bubbling with disease, the corpulent scientist vampire who sits naked in his techno-chair feeding on the blood of his people, these guys often have weak and cruel lips.  Good stuff.

I am just going to keep on cruising through this saga.  I found a bunch of Thongors at Chainon from Tandem, a British press.  The image above is my scan. Oh yeah, there re so many names of beasts, places and especially characters and they all kind of use the same structure that I couldn't really keep them straight. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

27. The Furies by Keith Roberts

I found this at Chainon, a thrift store here that is a fundraiser/job provider for a woman's shelter (called Chainon) and support organization.  They have a small but decent english fiction section and while it doesn't change much, every now and then you can find a few gems there. They re-arranged the place earlier this year and right afterwards there was a minor treasure trove of old paperbacks, including a bunch of Thongors and this book, which I grabbed almost purely because it was such a beautiful old paperback.  I did not have high expectations.

The subjet matter is certainly in my wheelhouse.  Gigantic wasps take over the world.  It also is a pretty good book.  I would have been happy to have found it even if it were more trashy and less well written, simply because The Furies definitely can be categorized as a post-apocalyptic book.  Happily, it turned out to be a pretty good read.

The hero is an illustrator who recently bought a place in the country and has a pretty good life, kind of just enjoying things including a not-expected professional and financial success (that allowed him to buy the house) and a great dane.  He also meets a young girl who is vacationing in the area and they become friends, taking the dog for long walks. Then giant wasps start attacking in the area.  At first it is sporadic, but then it turns into an all-out assault.  At the same time, there are two major nuclear tests that set off massive global earthquakes.  The end result is a split and ruptured england and gigantic wasps everywhere, killing humans as efficiently as possible.

This is already a lot of fun but it gets a lot deeper and weirder.  I won't reveal too much more of the plot, but there is great survival stuff and rich exploration into what the wasps are doing.  It's quite tough.  Punches are not pulled, though it is all done with a lot of British stiff upper lip.  It's really quite epic.  This paperback had small type and small margins so it was deceptively thin, but really could have been a much thicker book.

It's not perfect. There is a bit too much of jumping into omniscient explanation of what is going on.  These explanations satisfy one's curiousity, but feel a bit unnatural and take you out of the flow of the survival narrative, which is otherwise quite gripping.  Still, I am very happy to add this to my library.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

26. The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson

A neat little fantasy novel from 1976 about a boy priest (named Tron, 6 years before the movie) in an isolated religion-bound kingdom.  He gets a sign from the gods at an important ritual which he distrupts, thus dooming the king to death.  He feels compelled to take the hawk that was to be sacrificed for the king.  As it turns out, he was actually being manipulated by the cabal of elderly priests in their machinations to maintain their political strength over the king and the military, who want to open the country up.  It's pretty neat as you the reader and the boy discover the world and the political machinations as well as starting to see that while he was manipulated, it's not clear if it was the priests or actually the gods themselves who may be playing a very different game.

Very cool story for young and old alike. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

25. Too Mini Murders by Patrick Morgan

Another book in the Operation Hang Ten series about surfing detective/undercover agent Bill Cartwright.  I am going to have to go back and check the reviews of the other Operation Hang Ten's that I read (I think two).  I don't remember them being as nasty as this one.  It really leans heavily on the pornographic mysogyny and it crossed the line for me and left a gross taste in my mouth that the redeeming features wasn't quite able to wash away.

Also, I get that Cartwright is mellow, but here he is downright negligent.  A young girl, whose life is threatened, comes to Cartwright's trailer for help.  He of course beds her (and satisfies her profoundly in a way none of her previous partners could even come close to doing).  The next day, he leaves her in the trailer and tells her to not answer the door for anybody.  Of course, the bad guys come and she answers the door.  Cartwright doesn't get back until late that evening and doesn't even do anything when he discovers her missing. He goes to the beach the next day!  She of course gets brutally raped, tortured and murdered.

There is one interesting passage where he goes to a drag strip and talks about the professionalization of drag racing, how it started out as amateurs in their garage but as the big car companies got involved, became more and more competitive and the little hobbyists slowly got squeezed out or forced to do illegal drag racing.  A lot of the philosophy of the book is the individual, free from constraints of the establishment (that is Cartwright's life philosophy to the point that he somehow justifies his violence against criminals in that they, even more than "the man" risk limiting his vagabond lifestyle). 

I went back and read the two other reviews and it does sound like the sexual violence in this one is particularily extreme.  I'll be wary but keep an eye out for these just because the cover is so cool.

Also, here is the kind of passage that I think reveals the deep-seated social conservatism at the heart of these novels (that I discussed in more depth in my review of The Freaked-Out Strangler). :

Every beach town had its share of night people. He didn't know what they did, it looked like they just cruised around when all the bars closed, crawling up and down side streets. Most were either queer or lesbian. Maybe they looked for easy marks. They sat low in the seats, holding cigarettes between thumb and index finger, dull lifeless eyes searching sidewalks.  Feminine men and masculine women.

Holy shit, that is over the top.

Monday, September 04, 2017

24. R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek

Okay, this is actually a play and only takes an hour or two to read, but I am counting it, damnit!  I read this for the G+ Tabletop Roleplayers Book Club, so if you really want to see some nerds in action, you can check out the discussion on this book at the community there.

I loved The War with the Newts and was happy to have another chance to read something else by Capek.  I am grateful as well that reading this play spurred me to read about the man himself, who was an interesting and important European intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century.  He died in 1938 due to complications from pneumonia due to a lifelong spinal cord problem, but maybe he was lucky as he was #2 on the Nazi's list of people to suppress in Czechoslovakia. When they discovered he was already dead in occupied Czechoslovakia, they interrogated his wife.  Later, his brother, a successful artist and collaborator with Karel, died in a concentration camp.  10 years ago, it seemed easy to write whatever you want in North America and atrocities like what happened to the Capek's and others seem in the distant past.  With today's climate of growing populist fascism, the choices one makes about what one writes down for others to see becomes slightly more real.  It is good to reminded of that.

I was a bit disappointed in the play.  I do appreciate that an actual interpretation on stage would have filled in a lot that is implied in the text.  As it stands on paper, I found it too abstract and simplistic.  What I loved about The War with the Newts was that while it also dealt in big ideas and there weren't any real characters to connect with, the events were so detailed that it all felt very realistic.  With R.U.R. we really are in the realm of theatre and allegory and it is all a bit distancing for me.  The characters are representations of their area of work or their role in society, so there is the inventor, the accountant, the mechanic and so on.  The only women, Helena, who is central to the story is also just that, a woman.  All the other men are in love with her immediately.

As a story, it did not move me much.  I would love to see it performed one day, as I suspect a lot of richness that is lacking in the text (probably deliberately) would be filled in.  And the ideas it does touch on our quite interesting.  It's funny as well.  Here is a good example:

It was a great thing to be a man. There was something immense about it.
From man's thought and man's power came this light, our last hope.
Man's power! May it keep watch over us.
Man's power.
Yes! A torch to be given from hand to hand, from age to age, forever!
The lamp goes out.

It is well worth reading and since it is in the public domain and is very short, you can do so right now!  Here is a handy link to a pdf of the play.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

23. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

I almost bailed on this book.  It was part of the haul that I found down the street from me (mainly the Pelecanos and Lehanes but a few sci-fis as well) and the one that I almost didn't take.  It's pretty big (678 pages) and jumps right in to a ton of politics and names and I got lost quickly.  I found myself annoyed at the nerdiness (it felt like it was written for the kind of audience that thrives on details that immerse in a setting rather than a human narrative).  Fortunately, I had read everything else I brought with me (this was partially planned) and had to come back to it.  I am glad I did.  It does settle down into a very human, really fair to say deeply human story that while not totally satisfying at the end, takes the reader on a rich journey and makes you think a lot about family and the future of humanity.

The story takes place in the distant future where earth has colonized the stars.  There is now earth and and Alliance (which I think are the planets still allied with earth) and then the Union, which is a group that has gone farther out into space and separated in a war from the Alliance.  The political capital of the Union is the planet Cyteen.  On Cyteen is also a super important institute, Reseune, who developed the cloning technology that has been crucial to humanity's colonization of the stars.  The Union is divided into several different political representations (Military, Commerce, Citizens, Industry, etc.) of which Reseune basically controls Science.  The politics are roughly competition between the Expansionists who want humanity to keep colonizing space and expanding and the Abolitionists who are against cloning and expansion and the Centrists. 

Reseune is led by Ariane Emory, a powerful, superior matriarch.  Her advanced intelligence (technical, social and political) is demonstrated early on as well as her many enemies, including another brilliant scientist, Jordan Warrick and his son/clone Justin.  Early on in the book, she is murdered.  Her family and the political bloc that she represented decides to clone her and grow her replicate up in an environment as close as possible to the original one and her growth and relationship with Justin is the main part of the story for most of the book.

See, it's a lot to explain and I am really glossing over it.  The issues that come up are really interesting.  Do you hate the child clone of the person who totally fucked you over as an adult?  How does a clone react slowly learning about their genetic mirror image and predecessor?  And what are the risks of a human society that can clone itself to make beings of various skill levels and psychological stabilities?  Cherry really thinks these things through in Cyteen and it's pretty fascinating stuff.  It's also really gripping.  You get caught up in it and the readers emotional responses to characters get thoroughly twisted around as you learn different aspects of well-detailed characters.  It won the Hugo and I think it deserved it.

Honestly, that I almost gave up on the book in the first twenty pages, I blame on the publisher.  This edition had one really crappy map of the planet of Cyteen, which you don't even need.  There are only two cities they visit anyways.  What it needed was a political map and glossary, so you can quickly figure out who all the players are.

Friday, August 25, 2017

22. Brooding Mansion by Paulette Warren

This is the sub-genre where I hope to distinguish myself, modern gothic romance, but I suspect that is just the privileged white male in me being arrogantly ignorant of the wealth of thought by many women fans of the genre that have already been written.  And really I'm just a beginner in this area and grabbing books as they appear before my eyes, such as this one.

The cover really is pretty classic gothic romance, but the book itself falls a bit short to be totally in that genre.  It takes place in Manhattan, for one, albeit in a giant gloomy gothic house/manor.  The gloomy atmosphere and mystery get swept up very early in the book when the entire situation is basically explained (though everything in the book is accelerated as it is very short page-wise and a lot has to go down).  A young and competent Registered Nurse gets a job to serve an old wealthy man in his mansion but when she gets there, she finds that it is actually his out-of-control son that she is taking care of.  It was a bait and switch by the family's doctor, at first for truly medical reasons (he does have a badly broken leg from a car accident) but then as the plot thickens, we learn there was a more nefarious, criminal reason.

I won't go into the details of the plot too much as it is all kind of arbitrary and patched together (old man is actually a neo-nazi holding meetings in his ballroom, the doctor is trying to steal all the family money and the brother and sister are decadent but with good souls who need guidance).  What is interesting is how the book started with the heroine showing real promise. She is competent and smart and in control of herself, but unlike male protagonists, everything she does has to be justified and legitimized by a male.  So there is a really interesting crossplay between her being a cool character and the reactive need to constantly undermine that or block it.  All the men in the book are losers. It's when the romance plot takes over that everything sort of breaks down.  It's one of those pre-pre-marital sex worlds where people fall in love in a day and have those weird conversations about each other that have no meaning and make no sense but they are in love.  The main conflict in the second half of the book is whether the lame son will finally stand up to his dad and be a man.  It is entirely up to the protagonist to help him do this and she is basically constantly disappointed until the very end when he finally does something slightly independent and now she knows she made the right choice.  It's pretty depressing and annoying but at that point the plot has come so fast that you don't really care anyhow.

There is something here, though, and I suspect better writers (or ones who had more time) can take this female competence in a sexist world to a much more interesting place.  So I continue to seek out other examples of the gothic romance genre.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

21. Stop this Man! by Peter Rabe

Always pick up a used Rabe if you find it, is a good general rule.  Original paperbacks of his are getting pretty hard to find, but Westlake's posthumous literary respect has resurrected Rabe's career tangentially and we are seeing more of his stuff getting reprinted.  This version was from Hard Case Crime, whom I know little about except that they seem to be doing exceptional work in putting out great new and old crime fiction. 

I struggle somewhat with trying to understand Westlake's love of Rabe.  It's not that I don't like it, on the contrary.  It's just that Rabe's books always seem somewhat meandering.  They lack the diamond structure of a Stark novel.  I think reading Stop this Man! helped me to better appreciate Rabe and understand why Westlake loved him so much.  That and the wisdom of age.  To appreciate influence, one has to also appreciate the cultural context of the time.  My father loves Godard while I have always been a bit mystified and sometimes annoyed by what looks to me today like french intellectual masturbation.  I realize, though, that my father was growing up in a cultural wasteland when it came to movies and so much of the irreverance and absurdity that is commonplace in cinema today is because of Godard. For a young person seeking something original in the late 50s, Godard must have come as such a welcome change.  I suspect this was similar for Westlake and Rabe.  The characters in Rabe's books just do.  Often, they are not good people. It's nihilistic at times.  Even the darkest noirs of the 50s and 60s had a lot of moralizing and hand-wringing in them.  With Rabe, and especially in Stop this Man! there is none of that.

The "hero" is an older jugger (safecracker) who has just got out of his third run in jail and gets signed up to a too-perfect job, steal a bar of gold from a laboratory.  The story starts after the heist, which went perfectly, except we learn that the gold bar is irradiated and basically poisonous to anybody who is near it for any length of time. This sets off a chase as the jugger tries to convert the gold into cash and the FBI try to find him by the trail of radiated bodies he leaves behind.  The jugger is a real carpe diem type of guy. He claims that he wants this to be his last job (he's 50 and one of the sub-themes is how he is behind the times crime-wise) but he is a pretty carpe diem kind of guy for somebody in his 50s, basically taking the ladies he wants and going aggressive against anybody who is getting in his way, including the syndicate smoothies (this theme of the modern, organized syndicate replacing and slowly eliminating space for freelance criminals is a theme we have seen somewhere before, no?).

It's dark and nasty and relentless right up until the end.  Reminded me a lot of The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Lawrnece Tierney could definitely have played the jugger.