Oct. 31st, 2016

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Book report time, y’all.

In the Heat of the NightIn the Heat of the Night by John Dudley Ball

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of seven detective novels to feature Virgil Tibbs, whom most people probably know mainly from the film version of this book (or maybe the TV series based on it). Odds are you know the basics: Tibbs is passing through a small segregated Southern town when as a man is found murdered. Initially a suspect, Tibbs is roped into solving the case against the wishes of recently hired racist police chief Bill Gillespie on the grounds that Tibbs is a cop with more homicide experience than Gillespie. Unsurprisingly, the story focuses as much on the drama between Tibbs and Gillespie and the racist context as it does on the murder mystery itself. It’s interesting to me that Tibbs is a lot more calm and soft-spoken in print than he was portrayed in the film by Sidney Poitier – so much so that he almost seems like a secondary character to Gillespie, who spends much of the book struggling with the idea that a black man is more educated and experienced than he is. In fact, Gillespie is the more interesting character here, with Tibbs mainly serving as a catalyst for him to rethink his prejudices. John Ball’s writing style is occasionally clunky, but overall he tells a good story. Here’s hoping other Tibbs novels are in print, because I’d like to check them out.

Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other WritingsLabyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is one of those authors that gets namedropped by enough authors I respect that I figured I was going to have to try him one of these days. And I did with The Book of Imaginary Beings, which was interesting enough to convince me to try Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, his most famous collection of short fiction and essays. And I’m sorry, but after almost a month of trying to get into it, I’m giving up. I’ll admit up front that the problem is me, not him. The first few stories are packed with interesting concepts, but his tendency to express them as almost whimsical philosophical ruminations makes it difficult for me to grasp the concept he’s trying to get across, the result being that by the time I get to the end of each piece, I’m not really sure what I just read. Again, this is likely more to do with my aging brain and recent lack of sleep – it could be I need to be in the right mindset to read Borges. So in fairness I’ll skip the rating and put it on the “Gave Up” shelf. Maybe I’ll return to it when I’m better rested.

Thieves Fall Out (Hard Case Crime)Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Gore Vidal is known mostly for his literary and historical novels. But he also wrote some pseudonymous crime fiction in the 50s, most of which has since been reprinted under his own name – except for this novel (the only one he wrote using the pen name Cameron Kay), which was recently republished by Hard Case Crime. The story involves Peter Wells, a down-on-his-luck American in Cairo who is recruited by a sexy ex-Nazi to smuggle a valuable MacGuffin out of the country – which won’t be easy as revolution brews around them and it seems other parties want the MacGuffin for themselves, to include a corrupt cop. It’s well written enough to be a quick read, but overall it’s not all that original or interesting, and Wells isn’t especially likeable. The main attraction for many may be just seeing Vidal write pulp fiction instead of intellectual American history novels. But even Vidal didn’t like it much, and didn’t want it republished when he was alive. Reading it now, I can see why.

Resume SpeedResume Speed by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading Lawrence Block’s books for over 30 years now, and this novella is a compact masterclass illustrating why. The basic concept is a well-worn one in crime fiction – drifter with a dark, mysterious past tries a fresh start on life in a new town, but his past catches up with him. But it's how you tell it, and Block tells it so well, with the crisp economical narrative style and dialogue typical of his work, and brilliant pacing. As Bill Thompson settles in Cross Creek, Montana, the tension builds not from what he does so much as the slow reveal of what he’s done and what he’s trying to avoid doing again. It’s gripping, page-turning stuff, and deeper than it appears at first glance. Resume Speed is a miniature character study of how humans sometimes seek redemption and a second chance, but just can’t seem to attain it – even when it’s placed right in front of them – because they’re running away from their own guilt over transgressions real and imagined. All that and a cracking good story in 21,000 words.

Changing PlanesChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short story collection with a unified theme woven around the concept that airports are generally terrible, and that if you are sufficiently exhausted, bored and full of bad airport food – and if you know the right technique – you can literally leave this plane of existence and visit thousands of other planes as a tourist, spending weeks traveling to different planes while perhaps just minutes pass by in the airport. Each chapter covers a different world with a different civilization populated by humans, humanoids and/or assorted creatures, with the stories covering key historical or social aspects of that culture that also reflect Earth culture, so in that sense it serves a satirical travelogue of cultures that share dreams, or never speak, or engage in extreme genetic engineering, or for whom anger is the default emotion, etc. There’s also a common theme of how difficult it is for travelers to understand cultures foreign to their own and the misunderstandings that can result. If you can get your head around the basic concept of plane travel (which does require some suspension of disbelief), it’s an enjoyable and thoughtful collection of stories, rich in variety and told with Le Guin’s typical storytelling flair seasoned with more dry humor than I’ve encountered in her other works so far.

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On a plane,

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