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Review Round-up: Vintage Classics (and Not-So-Classics)

We've just returned from a long weekend in Lyme Regis, our favourite escape. Dinosaurs and literary landmarks! Bakeries on every corner! We spent most of our stay buying delicious foodstuffs and eating them on the terrace (which had a sea view if you stood on the table). Occasionally inclement weather forced us to nap. It was exhausting. To make things worse, the trip was bracketed by train rides to and from London, during which we could only... read. 

Lyme Regis has an amazing bookshop, and after 4? 5? vaguely-annual visits, I think the owner kind of recognises me. At the very least, he sees me walking out with most of his "Pulps" section every year. This year was the perfect sort of bookish travel: go down with a Kindle and an empty bag, come back with a few dozen new treasures. (A future Post-Scripts, I think.)

Anyway, my travel slides aside ("click-click" Here's us at the pub! "click-click"), a long list of short reviews follows:

This Side of ParadiseThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920). Before this year, the only Fitzgerald I'd read was The Great Gatsby, and that was high school and I've already forgotten it. Recently, prompted by some book research, I've been plowing through all the Fitzgerald I can find and loving it. Sarcastic, funny, touching, witty, straight-forward language and wonderfully complex eddies under the surface - pretty much made to order for My Taste. Who knew? This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald's debut which a) bloody hell and b) like the vast proportion of debut novels is b1) a little too much about the author, b2) clearly based on post-event philosophical rendering of the author's own experiences and b3) slightly wanky. That said, back to a) - bloody hell. Astounding book and a fascinating look at an era and class that I don't know anything at all about. An amazing combination with all the Westerns I've been reading lately - hard to think of all this happening in the same country at the same time. 

The Fox by Conrad Williams (2013). A really nice little chapbook from the folks at This is Horror, who, understandably, know their horror. A family go camping and things start to get creepy. There's a long slow build and then the reveal and payoff all hit at the same time - as a mystery, it is a bit clunky. As an atmospheric bit of horror, it is smothering (in a good way). You just know horrible things are happening, pitter-patting around in the background, and the bits of mundane detail only make it worse when it finally kicks off. I'm glad it ends when it does, a bit of a new Scary Story to Read in the Dark, rather than any sort of greater parable. A nice book, and well worth a fiver.

[Seventeen more after the jump!]

What Prohibition Has Done to America by Fabian Franklin (1922). Another piece of research, and a little less rewarding than the Fitzgerald. Still, a good look at an interesting era. Franklin has a tendency to make the same grandstanding argument over and over again in every single chapter: this should've been a pamphlet, not a book. But when he stops ranting about the violation of the Constitution and talks about why Prohibition is so ineffective, it becomes a more useful sort of source. Plus, good to nail down the terminology and the language. (Did you know that cruise ships still served alcohol? The Government was worried that the travel industry would be killed off - especially for those coming from overseas - if the ships went dry, so it wasn't enforced. At least, at time of publication in 1922.)

HardBiteHard Bite by Anonymous-9 (2012). From last week's internet search for contemporary female noir authors, and a recommendation from Christa Faust. By far the best book I've found out of that search. Although still not quite at Faust or Meghan Abbott's level, this is a bonkers, extremely creative read (and only ¬£2.99 - golly). Would easily fit in with Hard Case Crime. Why emphasize creative? Hard Bite actually does the unexpected. Even the list of characters is slightly bonkers - the protagonist (a victim of a hit and run; now a wheelchair-bound serial killer of hit and run drivers), the girlfriend (hooker avec golden heart), the adversaries (a Mexican Mafia family) and the hapless cops (they're a bit hapless). But the plot twists unexpectedly as well: everyone loses control very, very early on, and the book is a mad scramble between all the players to regain the upper hand. A bit Elmore Leonard, but rougher and edgier. Or Garth Ennis' Punisher run, except with fewer laughs and more character.

China Lake by Meg Gardiner (2008). Another recommendation from the noir-search above (this one from Rob Bedford). I'm afraid it didn't quite pass the "hundred page test" (which is exactly as it sounds) for me, so in this case, no review. 

Montezuma's Castle and Other Weird Tales by Charles B. Cory (1899). Cory ain't bouncing Lovecraft as the master of the Weird Tale. Or even Chambers. The book is extremely uneven. Several stories are told by a folksy, corrupt prospector (a bit like Chambers' unnamed naturalist character), the payoffs are universally rubbish. He does even worse with a hypnotist detective named Watson, whose stories occasionally don't pay off at all. The few flickers of quality are mostly with Twain-style snark, including a cute tale of two rival "amateur" boxers and a series of ghost stories (played for laughs) inspired by hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

"One Little Room an Everywhere" by KJ Parker (2012). Haven't revisited this since the day it was published and, hey!, it is still great. A few links to The Folding Knife that have already been discussed in the comments for Chapter Eight. At "free", this is the best of both quality and value.

The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block (1965 / 2005). Oops, I lied. I brought this and the Kindle. It'll be reviewed for the Hard Case Crime rereads.

Some Will Not Die by Algis Budrys (1961). I can't believe I hadn't read this - a proper post-apocalyptic classic. Like others of its ilk (I'm immediately thinking A Canticle for Leibowitz), it is more a collection of short-ish stories, a future history, if you like. It also, like others of its ilk, goes off the rails at the end. The 'near-future' section, of rebuilding society on an apartment-by-apartment basis, and the framing device (armored car!) are both great. Others... less so. I'm more interested in what happens to individuals. Budrys kindly avoids exposition on how the apocalypse happens, but he does get entrenched in philosophical discussion. That part - not boring, as much as, you know, unsubtle.

The Many Ways of Death by Francis Didelot (1966 - first published in France, 1955). A bomb on an airplane from NYC to London. 6 hours to figure it out! Cuts between the action on the plane (singing, panic, blame) to scurrying around the ground in New York (lesson: everyone has a motive for murder!). A cute solution (which I proudly called about 2 chapters in) and an interesting way of twisting a "cosy". The romantic plot is shoe-horned in and all the characters are interchangeable. Not sure if it is fair to blame the book or the clunky translation - between the typos and the obviously cheapness of the volume, it doesn't feel like anyone was going for literary success. [Added to Goodreads.]

William Buckland (1784-1856): His Family and Axminster by Christopher Powell (2010). A pamphlet. On William "Most amazing person in history" Buckland. Sort of a companion (or clarification) for the two existing biographies of Buckland, both written by his children, neither mentioning several members of his family nor his various connections to the area. Sadly, we learned that neither Buckland nor any of his immediate family had stayed where we were staying. [Added to Goodreads.]

Strike Heaven on the Face by Charles Calitri (1961 - first published in the US, 1958). I am a stone cold sucker for mid-century small town scandal and/or high school books. And this is both. High school teenagers are involved in a sex club (like, a properly sleazy one as well - 1958!!!). At the same time, other, um, fiddling about is taking place in the town: the big muckamuck shows porn in his bar, everyone is having an affair and even the good kids are, you know, doing it. This isn't smut, Midwood style; it is closer to the first Harrison High book, where the ultimate point is about how you have to trust children and good eggs begat good eggs. The book never connects the dots, sadly - there's 90% of a novel here about the difference between love/sex and intercourse/sex, but there's no actual conclusion. It is interesting though - I'm now trained to think of high school drama as ridiculous, but in 1958, high school was serious stuff. You chose your career for life and, just as often, your mate for life. [Added to Goodreads]

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956). See above - scandal! A book that's easy to mock now, but the sales figures. Holy shit. Wikipedia says 60,000 in the first ten days. My paperback, a British edition from Pan boasts "1,250,000 copies sold in Pan editions alone". Golly. And, you know, why not? Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, except with the dirty scenes kept in. Again we have high school sex drama, but also abortion, rape, corruption, drunkenness (amazing drunkenness), infidelity and murder. Small town life! The central character, long assumed to be a bit of a Mary Sue (again, check the Wikipedia entry - Grace Metalious threw a drink on an interviewer for asking that!) is a bit of a... meh. A clich√© now, possibly more novel in 1956. While she grumps her way through adolescence, the stuff happening around her that's fascinating. Also a proper instance of slappenfuk occurs in this book. That's what frigid women need, you know.

OurikaOurika by Clare de Duras (1994, translation by John Fowles - originally 1823 in French). Fascinating (short) novel about a Senegalese girl growing up in France during the Revolution and the Terror. The story is... period YA angst (sorry), but the story of the story is riveting. Clare de Duras published Ourika at the insistence of her friends, then had an international best-seller on her hands - much to the chagrin of many of her male rivals (and the Anti-Abolitionist movement). As a literary artifact, this is the first French literary work narrated by a black female protagonist and the first novel set in Europe to have a black heroine. The introductions are better than the text itself.

The Man Inside by M.E. Chaber (1970 - first in paperback, originally 1953). A Milo March mystery, of which this is my first (and not last). March is a fairly moral, fairly easy-going PI on an insurance investigation to find a stolen diamond. He's not constantly wise-cracking yet he's not a grim killing machine, instead he inhabits a surprisingly empathetic middle ground. The establishing crime is pretty neat as well - a nebbish accountant casually walks off with the world's rarest diamond, leaving bodies in his wake. As an amateur, "one-off" thief, there's no way to predict his behaviour. Thank god for Milo, eh? Almost entirely about the relationship between Milo and the villain, and, overall, a really pleasant surprise.

Q Clearance by Peter Benchley (1986). The author of Jaws, a former speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, writes an espionage thriller around a speechwriter for a Republican version of Lyndon Johnson. The goofy asides and character profiles (which feel like carefully-stored anecdotes) are great. The overall espionage thing, featuring an Americanised Soviet agent and his attractive daughter, is a bit dull, as is the bit where we're supposed to care that our noble hero has a mean, mean wife. ('cause she isn't. It is an annoying false note, and just there so our speechwriter can have some sexy wish-fulfillment.) Overall? Meh. Quirky around the edges, rotten at the core.

Welcome to the Grave by Mary McMullen (1980). Another good, slow-building mystery. Harley Ross is a successful novelist having a successful life and a successful relationship. Except then his wife comes back. All of a sudden, things start to fall apart. It reads like a really good TV mystery - down to the wild acceleration once secrets start spilling. There's an unnecessary "hero" figure in Harley's agent, who's tepid romance and forgettable backstory makes him an unconvincing force for good. 

They Thirst by Robert R. McCammon (1981). Well, I haven't read this one for 20 years. A vampire army storms LA. The plot is ridiculous, and McCammon spends too much energy trying to build a 'mythos' for his stuff (a la F. Paul Wilson or Stephen King), but, ultimately, cop, kid and badass priest all gear up and fight vampires. What else do you want from life?

Len Deighton's London Dossier (1967). This book - non-fiction - is awesome. Deighton and his mates just write about London - travel advice, culinary tips, bookshops, where the "mods" hang out and how much you should pay a prostitute. A collection of hilarious, often-shocking, essays with postcodes in them. This should come back in print. I should read more Deighton. Both. [Bizarrely - wasn't in Goodreads until I added it. But the Londonist did a special on it.]