Thursday, January 13, 2022

the last book I read

Breath by Tim Winton.

Bruce Pike and his best mate Ivan Loon (Pikelet and Loonie to their friends, who basically comprise each other) are a pair of young larrikins in their early teens living in a smallish community on the west coast of Australia. Not much to do, and the only obvious source of fun and adventure is the huge waves that break just off the coast, so the boys take up surfing, and soon discover a taste for it and its attendant thrills and danger.

The boys aren't out in the waves on their own, though; there's a group of adult surfers from the nearby larger town of Angelus who warily allow the boys to share their patch. More intriguingly there's also a lone surfer known as Sando, clearly head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of ability, who doesn't associate with the group much but takes a shine to Pikelet and Loonie's youthful enthusiasm and becomes a sort of mentor, allowing them to store their boards under his house and offering some surf tuition and hippy-ish surf-related life philosophy. Think of Patrick Swayze in Point Break, but without the robbing banks while dressed as Ronald Reagan, and indeed without the shooting your gun in the air and going AAAAAAARRRGGHH

Pikelet and Loonie tag along with Sando on a series of expeditions to ever gnarlier waves, some in secret locations that only Sando seems to know about. A bit of a rivalry develops, for bragging rights over who has surfed the biggest waves but also for Sando's approval. The boys spend a lot of time hanging out at Sando's place and meeting his American wife Eva, who isn't wholly impressed with her husband taking on a couple of teenage disciples and is intermittently grumpy and sedated from painkillers for a gammy knee.

Pikelet comes up against the limits of his courage when Sando takes the boys to surf an astonishingly dangerous wave just about covering some spiky rocks a few miles offshore, and after Loonie steps up and surfs it he and Sando go off on an expedition to Indonesia for several weeks without telling either Pikelet or Eva much about it. Pikelet does some surfing on his own and mooches around the house in Eva's slightly reluctant company before the two of them decide to move the plot along by getting down to some serious fucking. This is obviously tremendously exciting for Pikelet, not to mention wholly inappropriate and rapey on Eva's part as he is barely fifteen.

We learn a little more about Eva's background here: she was a highly-rated freestyle skier before landing awkwardly off a jump and crocking her knee, something several bouts of surgery and painful rehabilitation have subsequently failed to correct. So her and Sando moved away from snowy ski country to avoid her being reminded of what she was missing every day - on the other hand, hey, here they are near the beach and she has to watch Sando and the boys head off to get their daily dose of adrenaline and peril every day. No wonder she's a bit grumpy. Moreover, she has to find danger in other ways, as Pikelet discovers when she produces a plastic bag and a rope from a cupboard and asks him to throttle her during sex.

But all good things must come to an end, even bracingly transgressive and dangerous under-age sex: Sando is due to return and Eva turns out to be pregnant. She assures Pikelet that he isn't the father, though the timelines are left too vague for the reader to be able to work out whether she's lying or not. When Sando eventually does return (seemingly without cottoning on to what's been happening in his absence) it is without Loonie who seemingly did a runner mid-trip to who knows what murky corner of south-east Asia. 

Sando and Eva pack up and relocate back to America to await the arrival of the baby and we zoom back to the framing device featuring a middle-aged Pikelet, now a paramedic, a divorcee and father to two grown-up girls. Sando has become a millionaire surf merchandise magnate and lifestyle guru, while Eva and Loonie are both dead, Loonie in some drug-related shooting in Mexico, and Eva in a somewhat undignified Hutchence/Carradine-style naked hanging mishap in a hotel in Oregon. Pikelet himself alludes darkly to some addictive risk-taking behaviour of his own in the past, though it's not clear whether this is the reason for his divorce. Anyway, as we leave him he seems to have come to terms with his life by helping others continue theirs, occasionally by having him rescue them from some of the same risky behaviour that got him and his friends into trouble in the first place.

The first thing to say here is that Tim Winton is one of my favourite authors and I enjoyed this very much, just as I enjoyed all the other books of his that I've read (Shallows, Cloudstreet, The Riders and Dirt Music). Like many coming-of-age stories it occupies a territory I described here as "That Last Golden Summer At The End Of Which That Thing Happened Where My Whole Life Went To Shit". Much is implied rather than explicitly stated: clearly Eva's relationship with Pikelet is abusive, however much he might have been going WAHEY and climbing on enthusiastically at the time, but Sando's relationship with the boys is more subtly suspect as well, his desire to be a guru with adoring disciples blinding him to the physical danger he is putting the boys in. And the significance of the paramedic call-out and the apparent teenage suicide by hanging which provides the book's opening scene before the wibbly-wobbly dissolve into flashback only becomes clear once you get to the end. As with some other books which use a similar narrative device, the winding-up of the various loose ends of plot once we snap back into the "present" seems a bit rushed, but the descriptions of the surfing action are tremendous, and I speak as someone who doesn't really like the water and finds all the mystical horseshit associated with surfing generally irritating. I suppose if you want a single Winton recommendation it would probably be The Riders, but I would strongly recommend all of them. Breath was filmed in 2017, to generally positive reviews; interestingly Winton himself provides the voice of the adult Pikelet who serves as a narrator for parts of the film

Monday, January 10, 2022

the last book I read

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

Richard Hannay is the right sort of chap; our sort of chap. Resourceful, tough, cool head in a crisis, owns a compass and a penknife, master of disguise, can handle himself when it all gets a bit tasty. A bit like that Jackal chap, although the whole assassination thing is a bit unsporting and he'd have no truck with getting distracted by huge-titted Euro-countesses. That sort of beastliness distracts and weakens a man and probably leads to communism and the like. No, a cold bath and a brisk walk with a stout stick soon takes care of those sort of urges, and a good thing too.

Hannay was born in Scotland but has spent most of his life in southern Africa where he has built a respectable fortune in the mining business. Back in the UK for the first time since he was a child, he is knocking around London feeling a bit stifled and starved of excitement when some lands conveniently on his doorstep: a man named Scudder approaches him in the corridor of the building where he has rented an apartment and tells him a remarkable story of international espionage and conspiracy and moreover how he, Scudder, is the only person who knows about it and needs somewhere to lay low now that he has faked his own death.

Intrigued, Hannay invites him in, and hears the rest of the details of the plot, which are sketchy but involve the imminent UK visit of the Greek premier, Karolides, and an attempt to be made on his life, with the wider objective of destabilising European relations in some way and accelerating the already imminent approach of war. Hannay has some errands to run but allows Scudder to lie low in his apartment - when he gets back he finds Scudder lying rather lower than he expected, having been skewered to the floor through the heart with a large knife. 

Needless to say this is rather awkward for Hannay and, having been through Scudder's pockets and retrieved an interesting-looking notebook with some coded messages in it, he slips out of the apartment and hops on a train to Scotland, hoping to go to ground in the hills of Galloway. But his pursuers are on the trail - those pursuers comprising the usual police but also a small group of dastardly types who may or may not be German, but give every appearance of being British. Since this second group were responsible for the murder of Scudder and plan to be responsible for the assassination of Karolides those are the guys that Hannay is principally concerned about, although of course being collared by the rozzers would be an inconvenience in terms of foiling the plot.

There follows a rollicking chase through the Scottish lowlands and a series of frankly absurd coincidences, most prominently Hannay running into someone he knows on a road on a wild and remote area of moorland, and later on Hannay blundering into a country house that just happens to be occupied by the principal set of villains, who instead of just shooting him in the face and lobbing him in a loch decide to lock him in a barn which just happens to contain a substantial quantity of explosives. Hannay's mining experience then enables him to blow up a wall and escape. One of the other people Hannay runs into (literally in this case as they are involved in a car crash) also just happens to be related to some high-ranking Foreign Office johnny and promises to write a letter introducing Hannay and describing the plot.

Hannay eventually makes his way back to southern England and seeks out his Foreign Office contact in his lavishly-appointed country house. Naturally, rather than dismissing Hannay as some kind of frothing loony he instantly recognises the kind of upstanding chap he is and they hot-foot it off to London. Hannay has been working on decrypting Scudder's notebook and has extracted the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" and some stuff indicating tide times. But where? Luckily the assembled company includes someone who knows about these things and they narrow the search down to a handful of beaches in Kent. The one they eventually identify does indeed have a staircase running down to the beach (with thirty-nine steps), a boat waiting mysteriously offshore and a handy cottage at the top of the cliffs where Hannay confronts the three occupants. But are they the villains in convincing disguise as holidaying English gents, or actual holidaying English gents? Have they got the right men? Have they got the right beach? As time ticks down a tense stand-off ensues until eventually on of the villains Gives Himself Away, Hannay raises the alarm and the rozzers steam in and arrest everyone.

I mentioned The Thirty-Nine Steps as a likely precursor to Rogue Male almost exactly a year ago, with the caveat that I hadn't at that point read it. Now that I have read it I'm still pretty comfortable with the comparison, although I think Rogue Male is a better book. You can see the debt subsequent spy/espionage/escape thrillers owe to this one, though, and their central characters, James Bond being an obvious example. In fact The Thirty-Nine Steps reads in parts like a sketched-out template for writing a spy thriller rather than a spy thriller itself, absurdly exciting in many places but lacking in any sort of clear indication of what the central plot actually involves (and as a consequence a lack of clarity around what benefit foiling it brings, since Karolides gets offed and World War I breaks out shortly afterwards anyway), and turning on a number of utterly implausible coincidences that kill some of the built-up tension. It's also extremely short at only 119 pages - that's not necessarily a criticism, just a reflection that there's not much room for detail or nuance among all the hooning about on the moors. It's interesting that all of the major film adaptations introduced some contrivance to provide a pretext for Hannay to wander into the villains' lair halfway through, rather than just have it happen by accident, and changed the ending from the rather downbeat one of four blokes playing a game of bridge in a clifftop cottage to something rather more kinetic.

It almost goes without saying that there are a swathe of warnings to be issued here around the inevitable racism, anti-Semitism, general Baden-Powell-esque disdain for squishy city types who don't know how to gut a squirrel - there isn't much sexism but only because there are barely any female characters in the whole book. How much of an outlier Buchan was in that respect in the heady days of 1915 it's hard to say. But anyway, it's a rollicking good read and won't occupy you for more than a couple of days, so why not. 

Friday, January 07, 2022

the last book I read

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

Dwight Bleichert, known to everyone as Bucky because of the size of his, erm, dental appendages, is one of a large number of American men who emerged from the armed forces after World War II looking for something useful to do, ideally providing a similar level of excitement to being constantly shot at by Nazis. Bucky decides that joining the LAPD is the thing to do, and soon encounters and partners up with Lee Blanchard, who he vaguely knows from his army days as they were both successful amateur boxers. 

Bleichert and Blanchard become mildly legendary in police circles for staging a fund-raising boxing match against each other, and also for their exploits in gunning down four perps on the streets of Los Angeles. So when the gruesome discovery of a young woman's mutilated nude body is made on an empty building plot in the city, Bleichert and Blanchard are quickly assigned to the case.

This isn't just any old clumsy shooting or stabbing in the heat of passion though; someone has taken some trouble over this. The body has been bisected, most of the organs removed, drained of blood, various ritual wounds inflicted on it after death and then brought from wherever the preliminary torturing and murdering was done to the drop-off location and arranged in a stylised sexual pose to be found. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill murder.

Obviously the first thing to do is to identify the victim, and she turns out to be Elizabeth Short, a young woman in her early twenties and an aspiring film starlet who didn't seem to have been getting much legitimate movie work but may have been earning a living in, hem hem, other ways.

Bleichert and Blanchard have an odd sort of partnership outside of the job as well, with an odd three-way relationship with Kay Lake, a woman Blanchard became involved with after he put her abusive mob boyfriend away for a bank robbery. This is strictly frowned upon by LAPD policy, as is the relationship Bucky enters into with Madeleine Sprague, a woman who may or may not have hooked up with Elizabeth Short at one of LA's lesbian bars before her death, and who closely resembles Elizabeth, now nicknamed the "Black Dahlia" by LAPD and the local press.

It turns out Elizabeth appeared in a couple of lesbian-themed, hem hem, "stag movies", and after the acquisition and private screening of one of these by LAPD Lee has an odd turn and flees. It turns out he is haunted by memories of his younger sister, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances and whose body was never found. Lee ends up all the way over the Mexican border in Tijuana,. and when Bucky follows him there it transpires that Lee has been killed and buried on a beach.

Meanwhile the Black Dahlia plot thickens: it turns out that an LAPD officer had hired her for sex only a couple of days before her gruesome demise. Could the killing be an inside job? Well, long story short, the answer is no: by chance one of Bucky's colleagues finds an abandoned shack up near the Hollywood sign with a crusty old blood-stained mattress inside, and this leads Bucky back, via Madeleine, to the Sprague family and in particular their former employee George Tilden, who Bucky traces to another abandoned property in the area and has a climactic showdown with among a gruesome collection of body parts in jars.

But wait a minute, what's this? Holy last-minute plot twist (and, needless to say, PLOT SPOILER ALERT), it turns out that, while George was certainly involved, the prime instigator of the killing was none other than Ramona Sprague, Madeleine's mother. Bucky has to decide whether to shop the now cancer-riddled Ramona for the murder, thereby torpedoing his own future career (since he suppressed the original evidence relating to Madeleine) or keep schtum and wait for nature to take its inevitable course.

James Ellroy write quite a few books before The Black Dahlia in 1987, but it is generally regarded as the first of the novels on which his reputation rests. Most people will be familiar with his work from the classic 1997 adaptation of his later novel LA Confidential. It's interesting to see some echoes of that in this earlier work, in particular the Bleichert/Blanchard partnership as a precursor to the Exley/White one, and Lee Blanchard and Bud White both having an odd mix of brutality and protectiveness towards women as a result of being unable to protect a family member earlier in life (Blanchard's sister and White's mother). I haven't read LA Confidential; the only other Ellroy I've read is American Tabloid, set in the early 1960s and culminating in the assassination of John Kennedy. That one is if anything even terser, denser and more complex than The Black Dahlia, and similarly marinated in booze, cigarettes, amphetamines and a kind of corrosive misanthropy which I would guess might become exhausting if you read too many of these in quick succession. The mid-20th-century LA setting and queasy incest subplot (here involving Madeleine and her father) are strongly reminiscent of Chinatown as well. The Black Dahlia was itself filmed, somewhat less successfully, in 2006

The Black Dahlia is based on real-life events: there really was a woman called Elizabeth Short, she really was an aspiring starlet, she really was murdered in gruesome circumstances in 1947 and she really was given that nickname afterwards. Outside that real-life framework most of the other details and characters in the book are fictional; in particular the killer was never found, although even now someone occasionally pops up to say MY DAD DID IT and get a lucrative TV interview and book deal out of it. The other relevant real-life event is the (also unsolved) murder of Ellroy's mother in 1958, something he credits in interviews with getting him interested in crime as a general topic in the first place. Ellroy revels in the nickname "the demon dog of American crime fiction", a moniker that, rather like Paul Ince's "the guv'nor", would carry more weight if it were not for the suspicion of being self-applied.

One of the things that you'll see if you watch any of the gazillion true-crime video clips associated with the case is that Americans say the word "dahlia" differently from people in the UK. I had a brief moment where I thought whoa, maybe it's just me, but no, British people do tend to say day-lia, while Americans say dah-lia, or maybe dal-lia. This is another of those cases where you laugh indulgently to yourself and say: haha, stupid Americans, but of course if you think about it that is actually a much more sensible way of pronouncing it, since the flowers were named for Anders Dahl, an 18th-century Swedish botanist (rather than, say, Jim Dale).

Anyway, enough horticulture, back to the book: I enjoyed it very much and recommend you read at least one Ellroy novel, though they are dense and dark and rich and you might need to freshen the palate afterwards with something a bit more well-disposed towards humanity in general. As it happens both the Ellroys I've read (The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid) are the first book in a series (a quartet and a trilogy respectively) so they might be good ones to start with.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

what's another year

Time for the end-of-year book and general blogging stats round-up. If asked to characterise 2021 in general terms I would probably respond by just recycling my valedictory verdict on 2020, as follows:

Well, here we are at the end of another year, one which has, on balance, sucked ass most egregiously

We weren't under quite such stringent pandemic restrictions in 2021 as we were for a good (well, not good exactly) chunk of 2020, but nonetheless slightly decreased scope for just swanning off may have led to increased opportunities for catching up on reading. That might go some way to explaining how 2021 ended up being the second-bookiest year on record, its totals of 30 books and 10359 pages both being second only to 2011 (33 and 10597 respectively), a year in which, let's not forget, I had no kids to wrangle and a three-week honeymoon ripe with opportunities for reading (yes, yes, and other stuff too, OY OY etc.).

Here are the usual charts (plus a new one):

A few highlights to savour: 
  • Longest book of the year was The Pope's Rhinoceros at 753 pages, shortest was Call For The Dead at 157 pages.
  • Average book length was just over 345 pages, second only to 2020's whopping 384. Unlike 2020 which featured six books of over 500 pages, 2021 featured only two, The Pope's Rhinoceros and The Lacuna. There were no fewer than eight of between 400 and 500 pages, though. 
  • While 2021's total of 69 blog posts was one more than 2020, and therefore the most since 2016, the number of non-book-related posts actually went down. The book-posts-as-a-percentage-of-total-posts figure was higher than it's ever been at 43.5%.
  • The new chart at the bottom is to assess the split between male and female authors, something I've been more conscious of following the ten-month gap (May 2019 to March 2020) between books by women that I observed here. 2021 turns out to be not terrible by historical standards in that regard, in that 9 out of the 30 books were by women. That 30% is the highest since 2016 and considerably better than the dark days of 2019 where only 2 out of 17 books were by women - the only year in which more than a third of the books I read were by women was 2013 (7 out of 19).