Sunday, November 09, 2014

20. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I see now that several of her romantic
thrillers are published in this style. 
Collection addiction stimulated!
I'm very angry at myself, because I found this really nice copy in the dollar book bin in front of the same used bookstore where I bought The Deal.  This time, the owner was sitting on a stool just inside the doorway, writing prices on the inside cover of books from a new shipment.  The story is overcrowded at the best of times, but on this day there were so many stacks of books that I could not walk through without taking my backpack off.  Classic used bookstore owner.  But I digress.  I am angry at myself because after keeping the book safely on my shelf I stupidly put it into my jacket pocket when going out to a friend's house in case I got stuck with time to kill and no reading material.  And of course, the spine got bent.  I still have so much to learn about myself.

Anyhow, Wildfire at Midnight is a well-written thriller with a plucky and beautiful British heroine, which is undermined by a painfully sexist romantic demoument.  It was Stewart's second novel, written in 1956, so I can excuse the gender politics somewhat, but it was just so disappointing.  The heroine is a divorced model who decides to take a vacation in Skye, rugged Northern country that draws anglers and climbers.  When she gets to the isolated and charming country inn, after meeting an attractive local outdoors enthusiast on the boat ride over, she immediately discovers that her ex-husband is staying there.  She also learns that there has been a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a local girl on a nearby mountain.  What follows is a thriller as more murders happen and nobody staying in the inn is above suspicion.


The sexual politics that were so frustrating is that her ex-husband acts like a total dick the whole time, even to the point of being so aggressively creepy that she thinks he is the killer (and Stewart leads the reader into suspecting him as well).  Of course, it turns out that he isn't and he even sort of saves her and then there is this really terrible scene where he declares his love for her and she realizes she still loves him and its all suddenly hunky-dory.  The whole idea of being divorced is presented as an untenable choice throughout the book and that it is superior to marry the jerky manipulator than to just stay single even if you are a beautiful, smart, brave and hardworking woman.

The other disappointment was that the mystery of the murders wasn't complex at all.  There was no link between the murdered and the potentially interesting conflicts among the guests at the inn.  He was basically just a psycho.  So there was nothing for the reader to dig into and try and guess who or why was responsible.  Finally, I guessed it about halfway through because Stewart's double blinds were too obvious.  Again, only her second book and the descriptions of the locale (which I would love to visit) evocative and the characters rich.  And the psycho is into some old-school Wicker Man style paganism, which is cool.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

19. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I follow some people on my Google+ feed who are big fans of gothic literature and it is from them that I learned of the Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first gothic fiction.  It turns out meezly had a nice paperback copy of it in her bookshelf (which is a growing source of potential good reads for me). 

This is a weird book.  It is far from gothic in tone.  It's actually quite absurd and funny.  Just to give you an idea, at the very beginning of the book, the sickly son of the Prince of Otranto, who is going to be strategically married to a neighbouring Duke's daughter, is killed by a giant plumed helmet that falls out of the sky.  What follows is a story of political and courtly intrigue as seen from the perspective of several characters. The Prince is the principal figure (to call him a protagonist does not capture what a maniacal asshole he is) and once his son is dead, he becomes obsessed with marrying Princess Isabelle (who was supposed to have become his daughter-in-law).  We also follow his wife and daughter, the priest (who shelters Isabelle) and a handsome, idealistic young foreigner.

The layout of the writing makes it difficult to read.  I don't know if it was this edition or that was the way it was orginally written, but there are paragraphs that last several pages, with back and forth dialogue and a lot of narrative all crammed in there.  Some of these passages, I suspect, are supposed to be quite humorous.  The dialogue involves one person repeatedly not getting to the point of what they said they were going to say while the other one keeps exhorting them to get to the point.  I found it tiring.  The action picks up in the second half and it ends up being somewhat enjoyable.

The gothicness of it is more in the themes and locations:  unknown birthrights, mysterious strangers, evil momarchs, the haunted castle, the catacombs underneath, a gloomy forest, etc.  I'm sure I am not doing justice to this book, as it is from the 18th century and has been studied extensively by scholars.  I'm glad I read it, though.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

18. Adrano/For Hire 1 - The Corsican Cross by Michael Bradley

The front cover of this striving for respectability men's adventure novel is a bit of a mess with a photo, an illustration and way too many typefaces.  The back cover, however, is awesome.  Two dudes in a Greek diner smoking!  A guy reading a book!  The guy reading the book is actually a significant moment.  There definitely were several scenes of mafiosi eating, but I don't remember a particularly important one taking place in a restaurant.

It wasn't the back cover that attracted me to the book, but the idea of the young buck advancing his career by shaking up the boring old organization.  I always enjoy corporate politics in crime and the added anti-establishment theme was icing on the cake. Adrano even makes a favourable metaphor with himself and the hippies in one section.  It's clear the author is sympathetic to that movement as well.  I was hoping Adrano's plan would be a bit more intelligent and complex.  It was all a bit preposterous but not insanely so and the execution along the way was quite enjoyable.

Glorious Trash writes a much more thorough review here.  He is much more critical of the protagonist and I don't have a strong argument against his position.  I just personally didn't find him quite so arrogant.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

17, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Now that my wife has got her books unpacked on a beautiful new set of shelves, I am able to peruse her collection, which is quite interesting.  We share a lot of taste in genre, but her authors are wildly different than mine.  I was going through them when she suggested I try Fingersmith.  The narrative kept you hooked and it had hot lesbian action.  That was enough for me.  I see now that I had added it to my to read list when I read her original blog post, but had completely forgotten.

You should probably just read her post, as it does a much better job than I could of capturing the books qualities.  But for form's sake here goes:

Very simply, Fingersmith is a Dickens from a 21st century perspective.  And perhaps a bit more neatly structured.  The book starts out in a house of lower class petty criminals, their primary source of income being fencing.  The protagonist, Susan, is a teenage girl who was adopted by the matron of the home Susan is inducted into a plot to trick a young, naive country heiress of her fortune.  Her role is to act as the lady's maid to encourage her to sneak off with Gentleman, a gentleman fallen down in class and morals.

I will say no more as the story really does take you off on a ride where you want to find out what happens next.  I think because of it has lesbians, pornography and a lot of women suffering from male power, this book gets a lot of literary love.  That may be well earned, but for me it is just a tightly written, entertaining story where you really care about what happens to the characters.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

16. Weekend by Christopher Pike

Found this at the free box on St-Viateur (where my wife sometimes finds good kids clothes).  Again, I'm picking up anything that I can easily read without worrying about damaging.  This looked pretty trashy, but the 80s-ness of it appealed to my me and the first page was actually not badly written.

I was a chapter in before I realized that this was specifically written for teenagers in mind and I now know that Point was an imprint of Scholastic.  It also got bogged down in all these relatively complex relationships between a group of guys and girls going to Mexico for a weekend holiday.  At one point, I was seriously considering drawing up a relationship map on a piece of paper just to keep it all straight.  But I powered through.  Then what drove me on was to see how violent and how supernatural it might actually be.  I have to admit to that the intrigue of the story kept me turning the pages.

It turns out that there is a lot of tension and anxiety in this group of seniors soon to graduate.  Besides break-ups, rivalries and betrayals, one of them was actually poisoned at the party, her kidneys destroyed and now surviving on a dialysis machine.  It is she and her sister who have invited everybody down.  But weirdly, only the kids involved in the night of the poisoning plus one mysterious new boy are the ones who actually make it.  Also, they encounter a strange shaman-like man on the route who talks to ravens and seems to see through their soul.

It's a bit of a mess and preposterous, but quite a lot of fun for most of the book.  I can see how it would have been popular back in the 80s among the appropriate demographic (I'm guessing grade 9 girls or so).  The ridiculously happy ending brings it all back down from the dark promise of the middle, but that is probably okay given its target audience.  I have a vague feeling in the back of my mind that I have read something by Christopher Pike back in the day, but I might be mixing him up with the first captain of the Enterprise.

Monday, October 06, 2014

15. Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

After finishing Roseanna, I wanted to seize on to my new found reading momentum but unfortunately did not have any disposable trade paperbacks that I wanted to read.  Desperately, I went to my own bookshelves and re-discovered the Eric Ambler omnibus edition that I had found in an unmanned use bookstore/barn on the side of the road in Ontario's cottage country.  The book is called Intrigue and contains four of the classics of Ambler's early period:  Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger.  It also has an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock which I shall read upon completing this post.

Journey into Fear was excellent.  A naive British engineer travelling to Turkey at the beginning of the Second World War suddenly finds his life threatened by Axis spies.  They want to delay the deal he worked between his armaments firm and the Turkish government.  After a failed assassination attempt in his hotel room in Istanbul, the Turkish secret service have him put on a small freighter to Genoa.  There are a dozen other passengers or so and the bulk of the intrigue takes place on the ship, as his naiveté is slowly stripped from him and he learns the true nature of the world and the war that is building up momentum around him.

Ambler is probably the progenitor of the realist school of espionage fiction.  His heroes are oftne not heroic and the bad guys can be quite banal, even pathetic.  However, he does, at least in the earlier books, have clear good guys and bad guys.  It's interesting reading them today, in the post LeCarré world.  I wasn't sure at which point it would be clear who were the good guys and bad guys.  The twist for me was that there was no twist, if you see what I mean.  Despite the traditional form of protagonist and antagonist, Journey into Fear is at its core a fairly dark and pessimistic book and probably reflects Ambler's own awakening to the horrors of the war as they came to touch upon everyone in England.

What I particularly enjoyed about Journey into Fear is the role that manners play in the intrigue.  Every interaction has layers of breeding, nationality the social expectations of the situation.  Underneath all that are the true motivations of the characters.  Even when it is time to put ones cards on the table, everybody remains unfailingly civilized, politely discussing the various reasons why one would not wish to kill the other person but would do so if it were made absolutely necessary.

[In looking for an existing online image of the cover, I see that The Sun King has a different version of Intrigue with a different cover and only three novels and no intro by Alfred Hitchcock.  Will this start an international game of cat and mouse as he does everything in his power to obtain my copy?  Or should I simply reveal that mine is a Book Club edition, the shabby bourgeois riding the third class car of book collecting to save him the trouble and expense?]

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

14. Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Trade paperbacks may have pulled Olman's Fifty from the edge of the pit!

I am alive, I have been reading, albeit very slowly (up to 14 so far this year as you can see).  I have a child now and have significantly more responsibilities at work after a timely promotion.  However, these are really minor factors in my blogging decline.  It's these godamned tablets!  They are like the crack cocaine version of the internet and I have been spending almost all my leisure hours with my cracked lips sucking on the pipe.  It's pathetic.  Google+ believe it or not is particularly insatiable, consuming my hours as I sit there hunched over, drool collecting on the corner of my lip, reading snippet after snippet on pulp fiction covers, tabletop RPG gaming controversy and sports gossip.  It's pathetic.

But these last months I have slowly grown weary and the well is getting drier and drier.  My wife discovered a garage sale with some great kids books and we went back together.  They had several of the Inspector Martin Beck books in good trade paperback form and I grabbed the first one for a dollar.  I realized that I have several vintage paperbacks that I want to read, but I am too scared to crack them open for fear of damaging them.  I got into used paperbacks in the first place oh so many years ago because I am so rough with books and wanted something I could keep with me at all times and conditions and not worry about their condition.  Now that the traditional paperback has become a niche collectible, I can no longer afford to do that.  I was anti-trade paperback for many reasons, but since more and more good books (i.e. non-literary fiction) have been re-released in trade paperback form, I suspect we will be seeing more and more of them show up in used book stores and garage sales.  Well this Roseanna was a start anyways and I devoured it in a day, spilled milk and water on it, knocked it off the side of the bed and put it in a backpack with a soiled diaper bag and bread crumbs.

I should have bought them all, but was wary of commitment at this early stage of my reading rehabilitation.  Roseanna is a straight-up detective procedural, utterly focused on the investigation and a frustrating and slow one that is somehow neither for the reader.  A woman shows up dead in the bucket of a lock dredger in Sweden.  At first, they can't even identify her, let alone generate a list of suspects.  Martin Beck is called in from Stockholm and he and his colleagues doggedly keep at it until little by little they start unearthing more and more information, some by luck, some by smart investigation but most by exhausting every possible channel of dogged info gathering.  It's extremely satisfying to read about people who work hard in a quiet, often unpleasant but determined and relentless way.  The ending was quite tense, though the thriller aspect at the end felt a bit forced.  From the introduction, the entire series is a 10-book examination of the Swedish investigation bureau and if the characters evolve and the investigations continue like this one, I will definitely get into it.  I'm glad I finally stumbled upon what most detective readers have known for a long time.

[As for reviews of the previous 13 books for this year, I have noted the time of their reading but haven't actually written reviews.  May write a few but may also just throw in a brief sentence or two to note their having being read.  Thanks for your patience!]