Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quick Book Reviews

God Save the Mark - Donald E. Westlake
This was my first visit into the world of Donald Westlake (aside from Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel). It is a very engaging romp through the streets of New York City. I love a good con, and it was particularly entertaining to see so many from the victim's perspective. The mark in question, Fred Fitch, is one of the most entertaining characters I've come across in years. Westlake's NYC of the 60s is full of dames, goons and grifters and it is fun to go along for the ride. I'm surprised this one was never optioned by a movie studio, as it would have made for a helluva movie circa 1968.

The Postman Always Rings Twice - James Cain
This was my second Cain book (after Double Indemnity) and I think I liked this one even better. It’s full of sweat, lust and dust and Cain’s prose is wonderfully economical. His California is a seedy place, unlike anything we’d imagine today. He does a very good job of building suspense, especially in the first, flubbed attempted murder. It’s a solid piece of crime fiction, and I can understand why the subtle mixture of sex and violence might have ruffled a few feathers back in the 30s.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick
I am making my way through the Philip K. Dick catalogue and felt as though I was spinning my wheels until I got into this one. There are definitely two groups of Dick books. The first have good ideas, but are lacking both in terms of execution and characterization (Eye in the Sky, Counter Clock World). The second group is much smaller, and I would place this one in it along side Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Man in the High Castle. It is an engaging tale of lost identity, past sins and the role of both celebrity and authority. It is thought provoking and intelligent but completely accessible.

Paris: The Secret History - Andrew Hussey
Andrew Hussey’s street level history of the City of Lights through the ages shines a light on some of the city’s darker alleyways. It moves along at a breakneck clip, but never feels rushed. From revolution to disease, it is impressive to see how a sense of civic identity can allow a city to thrive under terrible conditions. I do wish he’d spent a bit more time focused on the post-WW2 years, especially how the city came to terms with its collaborationist element, but at least he touched on it. I highly recommend this one to fans of social history.

Consolation - Michael Redhill
As a Torontonian, it was wonderful to see the city come to life as a character in this novel. The downtown streets I walk on a daily basis were alive with the struggles of people trying to make it in this fledgling town more than 150 years ago. The problem is that Redhill is not able to infuse the human characters with the same degree of life. The story flips between the present day and the 1850s, and the Victorian portion is much more interesting. The present day characters are not sufficiently fleshed out, and their sequences seem to interrupt the narrative rather than enhance it. The descriptions of old Toronto are fascinating, but I can’t imagine they would be of interest to anyone outside the 416 area code.

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