Monday, February 07, 2005

Recent reading

Caught up with some Star Trek books not too long ago, as well as some non-Trek stuff (below). The two new Deep Space Nine books came first, of course. Trill was intense and grim, with more of that close-up look at violence and instability that we've been seeing in Star Trek books lately. Some good character arcs, especially for Ezri and Julian; some strong imaginative worldbuilding scenes, most notably Ezri's visit to the old symbionts; and a lot of smart but unobtrusive bits like the reference to Odan-style Trill. Bajor was darn near pastoral by comparison, despite the fact that it had some violence and darkness, but fortunately Jake's storyline was a source of humour and romance in what may perhaps be a bit too dark and depressing a series lately. The story unifies a lot of the different (sometimes bizarrely different) views of Bajor we got in DS9's early seasons, pulling everything together neatly. Ferenginar... well, as much as I like KRAD's stuff, the Ferengi episodes are not my favourite part of the DS9 tapestry. Names like Brunt and Zek do not fill me with anticipation. Fortunately, Ro Laren comes along for the ride. She was one of my favourite characters on TNG, which never really made the most of her, so it's a delight to see her treated much better in the DS9 novels and to see Ferenginar through her eyes for much of the story. The Dominion story... remember what I was saying about dark and depressing? Yikes. But good. Riveting. So some storylines seem to be pretty much finished, as do some relationships, for that matter, and others are moving forward. But it's hard to see any cheer and good times ahead. Trill and the Founder homeworld are in a worse position than they were before. Kira could be doing better, too. And threats are gathering.

The DS9 relaunch has kept itself fresh by not just doing one novel following directly from another. I'm starting to wonder if, in a couple of years, we'll need to see it take a turn in another direction by dealing with most of the nastiness and doing a couple of books of relatively peaceful life for our favourite characters.

Next I read To Reign in Hell. Fortunately, it was pretty much free of all the crossovers and inside jokes that plagued the Eugenics Wars books and Assignment: Eternity. But the dialogue... okay, I know Khan actually did speak some over-the-top dialogue in The Wrath of Khan, but he and his followers must have spoken in relatively normal English sometimes. Or maybe the book used overwrought language out of some imitation Conan the Barbarian comic book to maintain that epic, larger than life feel. Regardless, it tasked me. The book is also predictable for the most part, because we already know what's going to happen. Boom. She's dead. Damn Kirk! Eels. Kids. Reliant. The end. The book had a few other things going on, but it was too short to really flesh things out.

The Voyager relaunch, books three and four. I'm a big believer in constructive criticism, in not simply saying "this sucks," in making some kind of reasoned argument about the merits of a book that someone else can understand even while disagreeing. But I don't have it in me to be constructive about Spirit Walk. I have failed to meet this challenge. It's not Star Trek. It's a new age fantasy drivelfest with a couple of Star Trek names and words used. All I am left with, in trying to criticize this as Star Trek, are the unhelpful words, "This sucks." Sorry.

After Spirit Walk I had to clean out my mind with some very different reading material. So I turned to a couple of old favourites.

Back in the mid-1980s, there was a small publisher called Black Lizard. They brought back into print a number of grim and depressing crime novels, reprinting old pulp stories and old paperback originals. Some of the authors were still reasonably well-known; others were all but forgotten. I'd heard of a few and read a couple but quickly learned that darn near anything published under that original Black Lizard imprint was going to be worth reading. (Black Lizard was later taken over by Random House's Vintage imprint and used for reprints of more well-known and respectable crime fiction and mysteries, while the bulk of the original Black Lizard lineup was abandoned.) One of my favourite discoveries was David Goodis.

Goodis was, briefly, respectable, well-known, well-paid. One of his early novels, Dark Passage, became a Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film. But he ended up writing a lot of novels of squalor, despair, crime, and doomed love as paperback originals, and several of those were reprinted by Black Lizard. Nightfall was probably my first. I was already a fan of Cornell Woolrich, the noir novelist whose stories of love, murder, and despair were more romantic and sometimes even had happy endings; quite a few of Woolrich's stories have been filmed. Goodis had all the darkness and precious little of the light. His prose was also leaner; Woolrich could get a little purple at times by comparison. For whatever reason, this grim stuff made up a lot of my leisure reading in my mid-20s. Maybe it made my minor disappointments in life look pretty good by comparison.

Anyway, Black Lizard never got around to all of Goodis's books. The Vintage version printed a couple more a few years later but they didn't hit me the same way. And a couple of years ago I found a copy of The Blonde on the Street Corner and had a hard time getting into it. I wasn't single, unemployed, and miserable; I was older, more mature, happily married, and suburbanized. But I finally got around to getting the one Goodis in print that I hadn't read: The Moon in the Gutter. And for whatever reason, it worked this time. I was home sick, reading it late at night, and angry about wasting so many hours on Spirit Walk. So the overwrought story of a dockworker trying to figure out who was responsible for his sister's suicide (she'd been raped), prowling the dark alleys on the bad side of town, getting mixed up with a middle class drunk, who comes slumming into his part of town, and the drunk's beautiful sister, who seems like a much better if impossible catch than the slag he's sleeping with occasionally... well, for whatever reason, I enjoyed every desperate, despairing minute of it. (And what do you know... there's another one in print I haven't read: Of Tender Sin. I'll have to order it.)

That was a fast read. Next up was a much slower, denser, and very different read.

H.P. Lovecraft: A Life by S.T. Joshi is 650 pages of small print. It's also one of the first books I bought from, back in 1998. The size of it intimidated me a little so I put off reading it. But, if you're off sick, you have plenty of time to read, so... I sailed through it much more quickly than I had expected. Joshi looks at Lovecraft's life, his fiction, and his philosophy. Never a conventional writer, Lovecraft spent a great deal more time on personal correspondence and what was then called amateur journalism (a distant ancestor of zines) than he did on the horror and science fiction for which he's still remembered. In all that nonprofessional writing, Lovecraft wrote thousands of pages on history, politics, literature, and more. He also exposed some ugly strains in his thought -- racism and homophobia among others. Joshi makes no excuses for Lovecraft, though he does put him into historical context and explores how these themes played out in Lovecraft's fiction. This is not a book for Lovecraftian newbies, but for anyone who's already read all his fiction and has read a bit about his life, this is a rewarding experience.

I'm not finished it yet, but I've read most of Silver Scream, a horror short story anthology edited by David J. Schow, published in the late 1980s (I've got the Tor paperback reprint). I haven't finished it yet because I'm finding it a bit disappointing. The theme of the anthology is horror stories that have something to do with movies; the tone is splatterpunk, the subgenre of horror popularized by the likes of Schow, Craig Skipp, John Spector, and, arguably, Clive Barker, all of whom are included here, and most of whom I was reading back then. Unfortunately, splatterpunk dates badly. Too much of it tries too hard to be both shocking and hip, achieving little of either. There are stories that work (Barker's, Ramsey Campbell's and a few others), but too many of the stories seem to be too busy shouting "Look how fucking edgy I am, man!" to tell a story.

Now I'm reading Wilder Perkins's Hoare trilogy. The concept is pretty simple: imagine Horatio Hornblower as a detective. The books are mystery/espionage tales of a naval officer who cannot captain a ship because a bullet wound has left him nearly mute, unable to shout orders on a ship. The Admiralty finds him useful as an investigator. Hoare deals with spies, sabotuers, smugglers, and other miscreants. The books have their share of surprises. For a start, the main mystery, a conspiracy operating against England, carries through all three books. For another, the stories grow steadily quirkier. In the second novel, Hoare is given a ship to command -- but it's a ship that is not allowed to sail, because it's essentially a floating spy office, crewed with cryptographers and other intelligence agents, some of them women, and all but devoid of experienced sailors. There's also a lot of inside jokes and tips of the hat. Jane Austen is a personal friend of Hoare's love interest. Hoare encounters Horatio Hornblower once or twice and remembers Jack Aubrey's "lesser of two weevils" joke. There's a spy named Ambler (no doubt named after Eric Ambler, writer of spy novels), an investigator named Lestrade (an ancestor of Holmes's foil from Scotland Yard, perhaps?), and others, including, I strongly suspect, a considerable number that have gone over my head. Ordinarily this sort of thing, done too much, ticks me off, but the overarching mystery story and the character development have enough seriousness and depth to balance the frivolity.

(Now playing: Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Stargazer (Mambo Sun Remix)," The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees.)


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