Sunday, July 16, 2017

11. The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

My wife had found this book and suggested I give it a read as her guinea pig.  I did so and polished it off in a few days (ah, vacation).  At first, I almost didn't make it through.  I was actually livid at times with the beginning of this book, which was overly-written and about just about the least interesting subject in Canada, the Toronto middle-aged, educated, urban white male.  It was educational, in that it confirmed a lot of my suspicions of this species from what I have read in the Globe and Mail and interacted with directly and indirectly over the years.  Nice fellows, great conversationalists and generally doing well in life, but just so unmanly and filled with anxiety about their unmanliness.  What is it with Toronto and being so scared about shit all the time?  They are almost as bad as Americans, who at least have guns and a fear-mongering media landscape that makes Canada look positively objective.  And the protagonist in The Killing Circle is the worst.  Guys wife dies and four years later still can't get over it at all.  And of course his only son is his most precious thing and he lives in constant fear that something is going to happen to him.  And there are lines like these:
It is a time in the city's history when everyone is pointing out the ways that Toronto is changing.  More construction, more new arrivals, more ways to make it and spend it. And more to fear.  The stories of random violence, home invasions, drive-bys, motiveless attacks.  But it's not just that.  It's not the threat that has always come from the them of our imagination, but from potentially anyone, even ourselves.
This is not only laughably preposterous, but possibly even offensive.  Toronto was never a dangerous city and the 21st century wealth spurt of globalization has only made it safer.  (A white journalist with a house on Euclid street has no right to claim fear and in doing so basically trivializes the real fear that the poor and people of colour suffer from police brutality and social inequality, legitimized precisely by this vague, bourgeois fear).

This book also does the thing where quotidien activities and mundane locations are elevated to literary heights.  Ooh, exotic, Chinatown ("...whole roast pigs hanging in butcher's windows, their mouths gaping in surprise"), wow Kensington Market ("one of the last places in the city where one can feel a resistance to the onslaught of generic upgrading, of globalized sameness, of money.").  It's relentless and makes one wonder where the editor was.

After having read the entire book, I think I know the answer to that question.  Because once we get past all this faux-literary navel-gazing, the rest of the book is actually a pretty decent horror mystery/thriller with an effective premise, interesting characters and a compelling storyline.  Wimpy protagonist joins a writing circle led by a self-exiled author who fled the Toronto literary scene in the 60s after a controversial first novel.  Shit gets weird, people start getting murdered and it is all connected to the stories in the group.  As is my policy here, I won't give away anything that could ruin the mystery, which is tough in this case because it doesn't allow me to write more about the positive aspects of the book, which really is the last 3/4.  It's not my genre, but if you like macabre tales of modern horror, this could be your jam.  I was honestly quite scared at moments and definitely kept turning the page.

My suspicion is that Pyper wanted to write a straight-up horror thriller, but because in Canada and especially if you are a Toronto writer who gets reviews in the Globe & Mail, you just can't do that.  You would never be invited to another dinner party again, let alone get published.  It was either unconscious or his editor pushed him to fancy up the beginning (or some combination thereof) to get critics and book buyers sucked in, my suspicion is that the beginning was all put there to make the book literary fiction rather than horror (the horror!) and thus acceptable for the Canadian market.

So, ultimately an enjoyable summer read and edifying both as an additional piece of evidence in the ongoing undermining of masculinity by Toronto-dominated media culture and of the ongoing snobbery in the Canadian literary community (and the two things are clearly connected).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

10. Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse

It's P.G. Wodehouse and diverting and entertaining as always.  I laughed out loud a few times.  He is such a treasure, because you can go back any time and find a new P.G. Wodehouse and it will most likely be entertaining.  Not unlike John D. McDonald in that way, but responding to very different literary needs.   Reading one this time did help clarify for me something about myself, that I probably would have faired best as a landed aristocrat whose greatest concern was nurturing a prize pig on my estate.  This is a vocation and setting that I think my interests and limited skills would have probably been best served.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

9. Blizzard by George Stone

Another pick-up from J.W. Welch dollar cart and while I can't say that this book is a winner, I did enjoy reading it for the most part.  It's rare that I say this, but I found it actually too short for the subject matter! It has the very intriguing premise of a snowstorm over the northeast U.S. that just doesn't stop.  It's one of these multi-character political thrillers that interweaves the effects of the storm with  the various storylines.  The storm effects and the response to it are quite well done.  The storylines were rote  and simplistic (disgraced scientist, plucky female reporter, idealistic politician, evil military dude) but the actual explanation was pretty wacky and entertaining.  As the storm worsens, it becomes more and more apparent that it is not natural.  Is it the Soviets unleashing a secret attack or, worse, coming from our own side?!

It all gets wrapped up too quickly (although ultimately redeemed by the dark ending) for the scope and scale of the premise.  Nevertheless it was a decent page-turner and a nice little time capsule of a book, intersecting disaster fiction and cold war politics.  Also, it has a cool fold out cover where the publisher really tried hard.

Friday, June 09, 2017

8. To Serve them All my Days by R.F. Delderfield

I've just been nailing the random finds this year.  I scored a beat up hardback of this book at the free box on St-Viateur.  British public school, check.  Stiff upper lip, check.  Inter-war period, check.  I was a little wary because it was written in the early '70s and reeked of the precursor to today's "literary fiction" but once I started reading, I was sucked in.

It's the story of a young Welshman who is sent up north to teach at a mid-level public school after 3 years at the front during WWI.  The climate up there is supposed to be a tonic for his shellshocked nerves. This decision turns out to be a fateful one as he and the school become intertwined for his entire life.  The story traces his ups and downs, culminating in him becoming headmaster and leading a new generation of boys as they go off to the Second World War.  It also follows the development of his family and relationships with three women during his life.  Much of it is small vignettes of life at the school and the various boys.

I just ate it all up.  I went to a watered-down facsimile of such a boarding school and while there was a lot of not good stuff there, much of the core values of British stoicism, skepticism and free thought that were reinforced there have served me well and informed my own personal philosophy.  This book is a near-constant celebration of those ideals and got me welling up a few times with anecdotes of boys selflessness and humble courage in the face of adversity.

It's a bit 70s in its outlook, especially with the sexual relationships (although that might be a bit mean on my part as overall the relations were kept at a pretty human level and avoided that weird British 70s patronizing of plucky women).  The women in the novel are important and strong but definitely fail the Bechtel test.

I tore through it and may well be ready for his other novel "God is an Englishman".  (I kid you not.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

7. Crawlspace by Herbert Lieberman

I picked this up from the rolling dollar shelf outside S.W. Welch's.  Like many others, I thought it was going to be a fun, cheezy 80s horror thriller.  Instead, it turned out to be more of a deep and interesting social and psychological thriller that was quite moving and not that scary.  It's a story of a retired couple living outside a northeastern U.S. country town who end up weirdly sort of adopting this semi-feral young man.  At first he lives in their basement, but they eventually invite him upstairs.  He is strong and super competent, but also barely civilized and clings to them like an animal that eventually becomes suffocating and scary. At the same time, they defend him from the small-minded townsfolk and things start to get tense inside and outside their household. If you want a more detailed synopsis (and a good review), you can find it here.

In the first third, it tended to drag a bit for me, but I think much of that was my confused expectations (thanks to that cover).  Once I kind of got where it was going, I was pretty hooked.  It ended up being quite intense and sad.  Part of me was like "just have an open and honest conversation!" and trying to blame the 70s but then I looked around me and realized the truths in Crawlspace about fear and ignorance and not saying stuff are depressingly realistic.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

6. The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (book 3 of the First Law trilogy)

I remember not so long ago my vow to never start a book that was part of a trilogy or a series.  Well it appears that if the books are enjoyable enough, I can relax my rules a little bit. This is definitely the case for the First Law trilogy.  Hell, I enjoyed it so much I am seriously considering checking out Abercrombie's other books. 

Often with any ensemble story, it is the beginning that is the most enjoyable, as you meet the characters and their various challenges are revealed.  Once you kind of know the path they are on, it can become a bit of a slog.  I felt that feeling briefly in about the first third of this book, but then just got caught up in the story and was carried along for the ride, as I was in the first book. It's not so much that the outcome of the tale is wildly unexpected. It is, ultimately, the classic story of ancient powers reviving their endless fight of good vs. evil, light vs. dark and dragging a bunch of mortals along with them. However, in the First Law series, the emphasis is all on those mortals and how their stories interact with that greater battle.  You really want to find out what happens to them and it is very satisfying when you get to the end (though not altogether happy).

Great trilogy, strongly recommended if that is your sort of thing.

Monday, February 27, 2017

4. Clowns of Death by Keith T. Breese

I was a huge Oingo Boingo fan in high school (still am, just don't listen to music as much as I used to).  I have had this book sitting on my shelf for decades and was prompted to read it when a friend of mine mentioned how it was actually Danny Elfman's older brother who started the group The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo when they were doing crazy theatre shows in LA.  I am really really not a fan of writing about music and books about bands (the deep disappointment of actually listening to REM after reading Rolling Stone going on and on about how intelligent and groundbreaking their sound was has never really left me), so I sort of surprised myself when I cruised through this book.

The first part is a biography of the band, with information collected from other articles and interviews and the author's own personal knowledge. The rest is basically a very detailed discography with brief reviews of each of the songs.  They style is breezy and definitely from a fan's perspective, but Breese doesn't take himself too seriously.  He just seems to have wanted to get this information written down and shared with the world and it is a very useful reference guide for a fan of the band.

Here's a great Oingo Boingo song for your listening and viewing pleasure:


Makes you think, don't it folks!


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

3. To the Resurrection Station by Eleanor Arneson

I read in passing that Eleanor Arneson had a really good space opera series but wow is it hard to find her used books anywhere.  I've checked all my haunts on the elite coastal cities I have the great fortune to visit and so far nothing.  I got this one from a guy who was selling all his old paperbacks. 

It's a fun read, but one of those disjointed sci-fi novels that seems to be testing out several concepts rather than really wanting to tell a story.  It's about a young woman who lives on a colony planet, long since disconnected from earth.  She is yanked from her college dorm to go to a remote colonial mansion where she is supposed to marry a high-bred native of the planet.  Then it turns out the robot guardian is actually the original colonist and there is rocket ship in the mansion.  Shit happens and they return to earth which is now a changed world, with uplifted (but kind of simple) rat communities in Manhattan and weirdly unmotivated humans in Brooklyn.  And oh yeah the young woman has some kind of probability distortion effect so that extra weird things happen to her.  The first half of the book, I kept wondering if some editor had just chosen that cover purely arbitrarily to sell the book but that scene does end up actually happening.

As you can see, it goes all over the place.  Some of the places it goes are pretty interesting and cool, but you sort of wonder what it is all in aid of.  I later read that this was her first novel, so I'm okay with that and will keep looking.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2. Before they Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (book 2 of the First Law trilogy)

As is so often the case, the second book of a fantasy trilogy is the one with lots of travelling.  They are often my favourite and I was not disappointed here.  We get to see much more of the world, learn more about the rich cast of characters and slowly learn more about what the hell is actually going on (though still leaving the reader with many questions leading into the last book).

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

1. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

This is book 2 of the much loved YA British fantasy series (also called "The Dark is Rising").  I started on it this summer and struggled with it for several months, taking it on trips and never opening it.  But I finally buckled down after the xmas break.  It's a good read in the end, but it just dumps so much of its own mythology on you that I couldn't keep interested.  Basically, young Will, who is part of a big, happy British family in the country is now also a sort of chosen one (an Old One) in the eternal fight between the Light and the Dark.  The first book took place during their summer vacation.  This one happens at their family home in a small village at the height of the Christmas season.  Will learns more and has to fulfill a bunch of small but dangerous quests.

What really works in the book is the setting and what happens there.  As Will learns more about the struggle he is invovled in, he moves back and forth in time, all the while the Dark mounts a vicious attack against the Light (and against his village and by extension all of Britain).  The attack begins with an endless heavy snowstorm.  So you get the battles and quests on the fantastic front all the while the regular people are struggling with all the effects of the weather.  For me, I wish the book had been more weighted towards the latter, but I imagine younger readers probably tend to prefer the magical stuff.  (It took me decades before I learned to appreciate the deep culture richness and joy of snow removal).

I'm not loving it, but it is not really the fault of the book but where my tastes lie today.  I shall continue to push forward though.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

2016 Wrap-up

Whew boy, book reading has taken a massive hit and we are at an all-blog low in 2016 of only 18 books read this year!  I thought the slide had started much later, but looking back it all starts with the birth of my daughter in 2012.  That year was my second-best year with 67, but in my wrap-up of that year, I had already noticed a huge drop-off in the last quarter and was not super optimistic for the future.  The thing is, while having a child certainly has an impact on one's leisure time, I am not sure that her existence is the real issue here.  I do have time to read, but I don't do it.  Most of my leisure time this year was taken up in food preparation of one kind of another, watching sports and worse zoning out slackjawed on twitter for hours at a time.  I don't even really participate in the online gaming community anymore, but somehow when my brain is exhausted, social media responds to some kind of short-term appetite in a way that reading books just can't compete with.  If I could even cut my twitter-fritting in half with reading, I would be a long way back on track.

Anyhow, enough self-indulgent whinging.  I did get a nice jolt over the xmas holidays with some fun Jack Reacher and the first of the First Law series and I have a new energy and will to read more this year.  Once I do get stuck on a book, I can pretty much plow through it.  It's the getting stuck part that I need to work on.

Another thing is that I did read quite a lot of comics this year.  I have a hard time considering them as a book and so don't count them anymore, but it was reading (and most in french, so that's worth something).  I discovered that my local library (where I have been taking my daughter a  lot) has a pretty decent bande-dessinée selection.  I am working my way through the works of Jodorowsky (L'Incal a classic that I never understood when it was in Heavy Metal and Les Technopères which was awesomely trippy), discovered Margeurite Abouet (first with Bienvenue but then Aya which is just great) and am also working on the managa Soil.  I'm not a big manga fan (I know, I know, it's not a genre, but Japanese comics are consistently littered with certain trademarks that really take me out of the immersion) but this one is a pretty engrossing and fucked up story about a designed town that goes bad.  Maybe if I finish an entire series or ouevre of one artist/author I will consider that a book and add those as write-ups this year.

My apologies for my absence to those of you with whom I used to interact in the online book reading world in the past.  My relationship with the internet is getting weird, as I suspect it is for all of humanity these days.  We shall see.