Sunday, July 17, 2016

14. Pentallion by Vanessa Blake

I have to admit that I am feeling quite pleased with myself having read this book.  Now, I am sure there is a large group of gothic romance readers out there who would read these words and think of me as a total newbie.  I am pleased, because I suspected that the genre of gothic romance would deliver some of the same kind of thrill that I have gotten from the more masculine genres of crime and action that I have spent most of my life reading.  I picked up Pentallion in the dollar box outside the way too cluttered Westcott Books on the Main (so cluttered that I actually don't go inside anymore because the entrance is blocked by several precarious stacks of books as high as my shoulder and leaving about probably just a little over 2 feet of space to get through) and it did not disappoint!

At first, it felt heavy-handed, with a ton of exposition being dumped on the reader in the first few pages: a young woman, Rosanna, whose father was a British spy in the Peninsular wars and mother a Portuguese lady is left orphaned in her small house in the countryside outside Lisbon.  There is immediate danger from neighbour and supposed benefactor "Dom Luiz" who had wormed his way into her father's society and now has designs on Rosanna Pentallion herself.  However, she is quickly saved by the arrival of her aunt and cousin, who take her back to her family estate in England.  The narrative relaxed at this point and eased into the real story.  I won't go into details, but it has all the classic elements of the gothic romance: the jealous relatives who are up to unrevealed shenanigans, the sworn enemy of her father who also happens to be ruggedly handsome and of good character, hidden wills, dangerous cliffs, miscommunications, faithful servants and so on.

Most of it was kind of predictable, but I still actually got a bit teary when the lovers finally understand each other and I was psyched when the conniving family members got theirs (though Blake pulls the punches with them so that the only real antagonist is Dom Luiz whose "hooked nose, hooded eyes, and excessively swarthy skin hinted of a Moorish strain.").

I am looking forward to finding more of these as I am sure there are some writers in this field who could take the form to an even higher place.  As it is, Vanessa Blake did a more than adequate job in keeping me entertained and I hope to see some of the variations that others will bring.  Good stuff!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

13. One More Sunday by John D. MacDonald

I don't know if it is because summer is here (though I wasn't actually on vacation) or just the power of John D. MacDonald's page-turning prose, but I burned through this book.  One More Sunday is one of his later, thick "dramatic" novels (which I guess means not in the specific crime or mystery genre).  It's the story of a mega-church in the south.  Though there is a mystery that is in the center of it (a journalist disappears who was sent to cover the church), the book is really about the inner workings of the church, the flaws of all the humans that run it and it's slow descent into collapse as their human weakenesses pull it apart. 

I loved the first half, as MacDonald really delves into the setting, giving great details on the church's history, its geography and how it is run.  You get to see the database behind its fundraising, the operation that answers (and takes money from) the thousands of letters received each day, the security, the finances, its reslationships with big politicians and so on.  Things tend to get a bit saccharine and slightly unreal in parts in the second half, especially as characters have some dialogue that sounds very forced and unnatural.  There are a few too many uneducated hicks who somehow have a deep wisdom and a way too rich language to share that wisdom.  It also feels a bit rushed and in need of a tighter edit.  There are actually several typos, which suggest that it was actually rushed a bit.

Despite those minor flaws, I was hooked enough that I had to stay up late finishing it.  Something that happens very rarely to me these days, so I was grateful.  I love the way MacDonald doesn't pull his punches on sin.  Still in America, the media hems and haws on corruption and immorality of big names and we live in a culture where people still want to defend straight up scumbags because they are powerful or have celebrity.  There is none of that doubt in a John D. MacDonald book.  He shows you the big name preacher at his worst and it's very satisfying.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

12. A German Requiem by Phillip Kerr

The third of the Berlin Noir trilogy (though not the last of the Bernie Gunther series, I believe), A German Requiem takes place in Berlin and Vienna after the fall of the Reich.  It's another really cool setting and a great, if slightly forced, context for a private detective.  This time, Gunther is hired to get an old comrade in the Berlin police (and later the SS) off of a murder charge.  The plot gets complicated quickly, as anything does in post-war Germany, with the US, the other Allies and the Russians all fighting for power and slicing up the remains of the German pie, not to mention the old Nazis who may or may not still be running around.  It almost got too complicated, but was enjoyable all the way through.  Kerr does a great job of painting on evocative picture and Gunther is a great hard-boiled private eye with a conscience in the classic mold.  He can punch, shoot and fuck with the best of them.  The only real flaw is that this book also features a semi-innocent woman who has horrible things done to her.  It's probably not unrealistic for the setting, but it happened in two out of three books in the trilogy and it feels like it falls a bit on the exploitative side.  If you can handle those things, then I would say the Berlin Noir lives up to its billing. 

Holy crap, I just did a bit of research and see that Kerr has continued writing Bernie Gunther novels and that there are 11 now!

Sunday, July 03, 2016

11. The Garden of Evil (aka The Lair of the White Worm) by Bram Stoker

Picked up a paperback copy of this from the local thrift store and jumped right in.  I was quite psyched at first, as it had the classic Edwardian language and setup of the young scion coming back from Australia to meet his great-uncle.  Of course, the young man is of outstanding character and mettle and gets along famously with his elderly uncle, who is delighted to have discovered an heir of such quality.  Things get even richer, when we learn the history of the area where the uncle's estate is, one that exemplifies the ancient struggle between the evil of Roman heathenry and the good of Anglo-Saxon godliness.  Both forces are still very active in this valley, especially evil. 

So a great setup and there are some rich characters introduced early on that have a lot of promise, the super sinister Lord Caswall whose family is far too Roman in their genealogy and Lady Arabella, who wears a tight white frock to emphasize her impressively slim figure.  They are both up to shenanigans it is clear from the start. Unfortunately, the story does not live up to the promise of its beginnings.  The pacing is really inconsistent, with big events happening in a sentence while multiple chapters are spent on the nephew and Lord Nathaniel (his ally in fighting the supernatural) theorizing in the most inane way.  The plot also just seems to have some major holes where things don't make sense and major events have no impact on any of the characters.  It feels badly written.  I understand it was Stoker's last book and was published posthumously, but it's a real mess.  And I am pretty sure I am reading the unabridged version (there was a popular abridged version that had 28 instead of 40 chapters).

Despite the rough structure, there is a ton of pretty good supernatural action in this book.  The protagonists race the great worm in land and sea.  Mongooses are ripped in half.  And there is a full-on psionic battle that presages Scanners by over 60 years.  It's chock full of fun stuff, too bad that so much of it is quite bad.  A brief internet search showed me that it has landed on many worst of lists and I think that may have been fair.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

10. The Flower People by Henry Gross

Picked this up at a stall at the Marché de Nuit here, after flipping through it several times.  It's a series of interviews with people from the the "hippie" movement.  It was written in 1968 and while some may find the cover and the idea something to laugh at today, it's actually a pretty cool historical document.  The author is a bit heavy at first with some of his framing, but the vast majority of the interviews are just the various people speaking and it's really fascinating.  There interview subjects range from a young woman who is doing way too many drugs, a head shop owner who is sympathetic to the scene, but also taking care of himself, a bunch of people from a pretty chill commune in Connecticut and a bitter loner who couldn't fit in. 

What was the most eye-opening to me was how self-aware about the scene itself most people seemed.  I thought that things were still in pretty full bloom in 68, but the people here are all well aware of how many of the "hippies" are just upper middle class kids coming in from the suburbs for the weekend, about how commercial things had become and about how dependent (or derived from) drugs the culture was.  It's sort of depressing to see how little we have learned as a society since then.  One guy, a chemistry professor, talks about how he can't wait for us to properly embrace marijuana and study it so it can be understood and applied properly.  That only took us 50 more years and a devastating "war" on drugs and we are only now starting to figure that out.

A good read, but its seriousness made me want to jump back into my Freak Brothers omnibus!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

9. The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr

I've been hunting down the original British versions of Philip Kerr's now classic Berlin Noir trilogy (or close enough that the first three have been reprinted in their own "Berlin Noir" entitled omnibus), since I discovered them at a great open air book market in Amsterdamn.  They only had the second and third and I thought it was a trilogy and so held off on buying them.  I've been looking for the first one ever since, to no avail.  I stumbled on a decent copy of the second one (Penguin, 1991) in pretty beat up condition with a fade spine, so I thought I could actually read it.  But again, I wanted to start with the first one, March Violets.  I was at my friend, paperback aficionado Hannibal Chew's recently and he had the above-mentioned omnibus and lent it to me, but of course I forgot to take it.  So I just decided to relax my stringent policies for this one case and started The Pale Criminal.

I was glad I did, because I jumped right into it.  I was a bit surprised by the tone at first.  It really is a straight-up detective mystery.  I was expecting something else, not sure what, but from the first page, The Pale Criminal follows all the tenets of the form.  The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is the ex-cop loner with some sadness in his past and a dogged determination to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him.  He gets hired by an obese, wealthy woman to track down some blackmail letters showing her son to be a homosexual. 

After this traditional setup, things do veer into a deeper place, as Gunther gets picked up by the Gestapo for an interview with Heydrich himself, who reveals that there has been a string of serial killer like murders, the victims being blond, female teenagers, exemplars of Aryan youth.  I won't say anything more about the plot, but the storyline does open up and takes full advantage of the Nazi Germany setting.  The mystery is solid, but the portrayal of the Nazis in full power just before the invasion of the Sudetenland as seen by the eyes of a working stiff with some policy authority is what really makes this book resonate.  Nazi Germany and Hitler get thrown around a lot as internet memes and references to fascism, but whenever one is reminded of the actual reality of it, it is profoundly disturbing.  I am fortunate to have had a good high school education with a lot of emphasis on how the Nazis came to power as well as spending some time in college on it.  It really is something we should never forget, because humans unfortunately have an all to easy tendency to head down that road.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

8, Fletch's Fortune by Gregory McDonald

I'm really going back to my original reason for buying paperbacks, which was to be able to carry them with me anywhere and not worry about them getting damaged.  That means I am buying books these days that I don't want to worry about and this Fletch fell into that category (also a dollar).  I remembered enjoying a few of these as a teenager.  This one was just okay.  Fletch is a post-60s anti-establishment James Bond of a journalist who also solves murders.  He can be funny but I think the establishment he is mocking has changed so much that he comes off today as just being kind of trying too hard.  This story takes place at a journalist's convention where the president of the association gets murdered just as it begins.  It got moving near the end, but ultimately lacked weight and I've already moved on.