The Man Who Went up in Smoke – 4/5 Stars
This is the second of the Martin Beck books, and I’ve read about half of them now. This follows up Roseanna, the first of the books, and a strong entry into the series. I think this book is also quite strong, and like the other books in the series seems to be laying the groundwork for a lot of the ways these books have been so influential over the years.
In this book, we follow Beck on assignment to Budapest where a Swedish national, a journalist, has gone missing. So first off, we have the basis now of two different Harry Hole novels in the premise of foreign detective in search of missing countryman, as well as, plenty of other internationalist books out there. As we move further into the book, the book as becomes about the differences between Eastern and Western Europe, or more so Sweden’s role and position in that divide, as well as about the shifts and changes in drug crimes and sex trafficking as various of the different possible leads in the case get investigated and sorted out.
The energy of the first book is still strong in this one, and you can still feel Sjowall and Wahloo feeling out their detective, who is no Maigret, Holmes, or Poirot, but instead a competent journeyman instead of a beshackled genius. And as we’re reminded in the introduction to this book by Val McDermid, the investigation into social issues of the time are very much at the forefront here. The writing is solid, there’s not nailheads needing to hammered in, and things feel good over all.
The Fog – 4/5 Stars
This book feels a lot like John Wyndham novels in a key way — small towns in England being upturned by local occurrences, but unlike Wyndham, there’s none of the reserved, slightly chaste writing of the 1960s here. This book is hyperviolent and at times gruesomely sexual. It also has one of the most subtle moments in a book describing the most horrible thing I can imagine.
The book begins with an earthquake outside of a small English town. When the crack in the Earth appears, a yellow, bilious fog emerges. It’s not a poison gas, per se, by anyone caught in it either loses their mind or loses their ability to see sense, often leading to acts of violence against themselves or others. One man is able to be recovered from his exposure, likely because of a necessary blood transfusion after his injuries.
So the book then focuses on a series of different figures across the town (and other parts of the country) as their particular psychology is affected and disrupted by the fog leading to the horrible acts of violence
And I have to warn you, it’s bleak. This book is from 1975 and that shift in horror writing both because of and circa the publishing of Stephen King, but also plenty of other writers, means that the level of grim detail is pretty stark here. So I think think book is pretty good, but definitely hits pretty hard in that way.
The Influence – 2/5 Stars
Another dreary British horror novel, this one from 1988. An old woman is dead, and this is a relief for her family as she was an emotional terror her whole life. However, little occurrences around the family house as they’re preparing to sell it off suggest she might be sticking around.
This book is a bit of an energy sink, in the way that I feel like most haunting books are. There’s the necessary slow burn and slow seepage of the details of the family and the evidence of the haunting, and a lot of times that works. In this book, and it’s pretty over all, it feels so slow and so painfully overly deliberate that it ends up dragging on. It’s also just sad horror after sad horror in this one.
Prisoners of Geography – 3/5 Stars
This book is packaged in a way that doesn’t quite hit at what it’s doing in the book itself. The book looks at several different regions around the world and discusses some of the specific consequences of the geographical features for the civilizations there. So for example, the book might look at how close geographically (distance) India is to China, and how much of a border they technically share, but then discusses how the sheer magnitude of the Himalayas means that the two countries have historically had little contact until recently and almost no military disputes. So that’s the basic idea. It might also look at say Egypt and how sparse their forests/trees are in general, to illustrate how they never developed a navy as a consequence (with the opposite being true about Great Britain in general).
So while I had little to dispute in this book, and while it mapped out a strategy for understanding the concept of geopolitics in general, it’s so broad in its approach that it has a very limited amount to say about any particular place. All that while also giving short shrift especially to most of Africa and all of Central and South America (while pretty much ignoring almost all island countries). So it’s a limited book with a limited analysis over all. A book taking this approach to a country or region that is of particular interest to you is going to better serve you anyway.
The Dark Country – 3/5 Stars
Dennis Etchison is one of those writers that lots of horror fans love, but horror writers LOVE to LOVE. In that way, I guess he’s a writer’s writer. I wouldn’t mean anything limiting by saying I feel like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg have similar relationships in science fiction and fantasy writing. I think part of this reason for this is that he seems mostly to have written short stories, and like a lot of readers, while I read a lot of novels, I don’t tend to read short stories at all, and genre short stories almost ever.
All that said, this early collection of his writing is really entertaining, pretty horrifying in general, and follows some patterns that mean that if you like what you read in one story, there’s a pretty good chance several more will follow suit.
One thing I found is that outside a couple of the longer stories, most of these blend together. That’s not a bad thing at all as it often means that the whole book feels pretty cohesive, but it also means there’s some blurring.
But one story stood out to me as absolutely fantastic, and started so gruesomely that by the time I understood what the whole thing was about it was really satisfying. That story is “The Dead Line.”
Into Thin Air – 3/5 Stars
Jon Krakauer is a little bit of an acquired taste, and not one that I am fully onboard with. This book, his memoir/investigative journalism from 1996, is similar in that way. This book, written only about a year after, details not only the deadliest season of the climbing of Mt Everest, but specifically the disaster that Krakauer was involved in, in which several members of his party died.
So the book, like other Krakauer books, is both about the history of Everest, and the climbing of Everest, as well as the setting the tone and context up for the current story, but also about the community of climbers and the culture of climbing leading up to the expedition.
Like in Into the Wild, there’s also a lot of space dedicated to the history of climbing madness that so many climbers find themselves embroiled in.
I think that this book is fractured right down the middle because as journalism, it’s entirely solid through and through. As memoir, it’s too closely engaged with and still too embroiled in the trauma to have much clarity on the events. It’s good that Krakauer understands that he is traumatized and the writing does not fill in the gaps of trauma with filler and fakeness, but the book is too soon to be a catalog of much beyond the trauma itself.