Book Report: The Conquering Sword of Conan by Robert E. Howard (2004)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 19th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is the third of the three in the Conan set by Robert E. Howard.

This volume includes:
“The Servants of Bit-Yakin” wherein Conan climbs into a hidden redoubt with a temple in it. Priests seek audience from an oracle within the temple, and a faction has brought along a woman to act as the oracle and to order the priests to put Conan to the death. Conan, of course, has other plans, including collecting the mythical jewels said to be in the temple or nearby.

“Beyond the Black River” which takes place in the wilderness at the Pictish frontier. A shaman of the Picts is getting ready to lead the clans against settlers in the area, and Conan and some others try to delay them enough for the settlers to escape.

“The Black Stranger” A nobleman has brought his retinue to a coast of the Pictish wilderness to escape someone pursuing him. One day, pirates show up looking for a treasure rumored to be nearby, and the nobleman might have to ally with two competing bands of buccaneers to escape his pursuer. Then Conan shows up with knowledge of the treasure, and he plays all ends to get a ship of his own.

“Man-Eaters of Zamboula” deals with an inn and a town with a deadly secret–at night, certain savages collect those out-of-doors and those unlucky enough to stay in a particular inn for a grisly feast. And Conan finds himself in that room.

“Red Nails” finds Conan pursuing a woman warrior who has fled from their mercenary crew after fending off an unwanted advance with deadly result. Conan and the woman find a strange city on a plain where a society has degenerated to two warring factions opposing each other from different sides of the large building that is the city.

So these plots, again, are more complicated and less repetitive.

It’s interesting that these, the last of the Conan stories, often take place on the frontier and Conan takes on a certain Natty Bumpo/the Deerslayer vibe to him. I wonder how much Howard wanted to do that. Of course, in the writing chronology this holds true, but in the chronology of Conan’s life, he is not relocating further and further from civilization, and certainly not for the same reasons.

So I was a bit sad to have finished the Conan stories. I mean, I’ve got the other Howard things to go through sometime (after I buy them), and there are some non-Howard Conan books to read. But not the original. Not the original.

And Howard did all this by the time he was 30. Sometimes, when I was young, I thought I’d like to live the pulp writer lifestyle, banging out these works for a couple hundred bucks a throw and living in a seedy apartment while I did so. I never did make many sales. As a matter of fact, by the time I was 30, I’d only sold a single short story for five bucks to a magazine made on a photocopier. Ah, well, I guess I still have a chance to make it as a pixulp writer if I turn my mind to it.

And good reads like these Conan stories are just the thing to inspire one to become a writer.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard (2004)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 18th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is the second in the three books that make up the complete set of stories that Howard wrote featuring Conan the Cimmerian. As you will remember, I read the first, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian in January.

This book features three tales:

“The People of the Black Circle” features Conan carrying off the queen of a country to use as ransom for some of his followers. She’s seeking revenge on a band of magicians for the death of her brother, and as Conan and she flee from a magician following them, they team up to defeat the magicians.

“The Hour of the Dragon” is the only Conan novel, and it tells the story of how Conan loses the kingdom of Aquilonia and works to get it back.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” talks about a female ruler deposed by her presumed dead twin sister who was left to die at birth because she had a witch’s mark upon her. Instead of dying, she goes onto become a witch and impersonates her sister, a benevolent ruler, until Conan puts a stop to it.

One of the knocks I had on the first book was that the stories were a little formulaic and repetitive at times; with this book and the three stories within it, Howard has concocted some more elaborate plots that are difficult to sum up in the single sentences above. Which is good.

Not only am I continuing to be impressed with this series, but I think I’ll pick up some of Howard’s non-Conan work. Maybe with Christmas’s gift cards.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Sink the Bismarck! by C.S. Forester (1959, 1979)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 15th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverSuddenly, I’m on a World War II naval battle kick, first with The Battle Off of Midway Island and now this book. What a contrast they make.

This book, originally titled The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck but retitled after the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck! came out went through quite a number of printings; this paperback is still in print 20 years after the original and 38 years after the events depicted in it. What kept it alive? Past generations’ interest in actual history? The movie in heavy syndication on television that had not fragmented into a billion channels? Perhaps both, maybe neither. But I’m prone to idle speculation.

The difference in naval doctrine is stunning. Although I’m no naval military history expert, the book might capture a turning point in naval operations. The Bismarck is a big battleship with big guns that knocks out a British battleship (the Hood), and then goes around the Atlantic for a couple of days. Will it harry shipping? Although that might have been the idea, it does not engage shipping and starts making a beeline for France when it’s clear that the British aren’t cowed and are actively hunting it. This might represent the 19th century way of naval war.

The British, on the other hand, bring the house. They have a number of cruisers, a carrier, and whatnot working together to target the single battleship. This is more akin to what we’re used to in modern warfare and, indeed, reflects more of the strategy of the battle of Midway that will come only a couple years later.

I’m probably over simplifying it, but the claim seems valid to my layman’s eyes.

The book is a partially fictionalized retelling, as Forester recreates conversations that he can most assuredly not have access to. It does make this book approachable and readable, but not academic history. The book clocks in at only 118 pages, too. Remember the days when paperbacks were only 150 pages? Heck, I remember the days when hardbacks were only 180 pages. But then price inflation meant they had to make them fatter to justify higher prices–compare to portion sizes at restaurants–but there was something to be said for a quick, informative read like this. Back when people read.

It’s worth a read. I might even want to see the film now to see the movie-ized version of a fictionalized historical incident looks like.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 9th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI bought this book as part of a recent new book buying frenzy (see also The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Getting Ahead). I was eager to read this book after seeing it on the blogs and in the Wall Street Journal because it sort of tracked with an idea I had, oh, about twelve years ago.

I remember distinctly walking into the foosball room at the start-up where I worked and explaining that, before we send men to Mars, we need to start littering Mars with things that those men can use in case of trouble. It was right about the time the mission with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched, and I was probably reading some science fiction at the time.

At any rate, this book details a single astronaut’s struggle to survive on Mars after a sudden sandstorm threatens the mission and his injury and apparent death cause his crew to leave him behind as they evacuate. He has only a habitat designed to house six people a limited number of days, two buggies, six potatoes, and his own ingenuity to make the best of his situation and hopefully hold out for some sort of rescue.

The book is a little heavy on the science and the engineering of his predicaments and solutions, but the voice of the fellow keeps it moving along pretty well. Eventually, NASA discovers he’s still alive, and they get to communicate with him when he drives to the Mars Pathfinder and reclaims its radio–see how it meshed with my pre-foosball musings?

So I really liked the book, although it could have been a touch shorter and some of the setbacks seem thrown in to lengthen the book or to pad it out. Of course, Mars is a hostile place–it’s not the kind of place to raise your kids–so I imagine the survival of the fellow is the improbable portion of the story. But it’s a good story.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray (2014)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 7th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI bought this book because all the cool kids were reading it, and by that, I mean someone on some blogs mentioned it. It sounded like something that might interest me, so I got it.

It’s a book that aims at the Elements of Style for professional behavior and thoughts of millenials coming into the workplace without a sense of etiquette and how to work with others in adult jobs. At least, that’s the way blogs have pitched it to me. It has that, of course, as a bit of a sandwich among a big portion of how to write and think well. So I was taken a bit aback by how much of the book was about how to work at a think tank and less about how to behave in the workplace.

Because, brothers and sisters, that first part is something that was kinda lacking the last time my visage darkened a workplace lo those eight years ago. (Have I been a freelancer that long already? Yes, yes I have.) I can’t imagine they’ve gotten better as that next generation has come up.

But this book didn’t ultimately resonate with me because its focus is split like that: workplace rules and writing well. Murray says this came about as a collection of intranet postings of his at the think tank where he works, and that shows a bit.

I’d hoped I’d get a two-fer on this book and get to review it for my other blog, but meh. It didn’t impress me that much. And although you, gentle reader, get a couple of paragraphs blatted all over your monitor for every book I read, the professional blog only gets things that will fit and that impress me. So take that as my final word on it.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Battle Off Midway Island by Theodore Taylor (1981)

Posted in Book Report, Books on July 6th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is a young adult history book. About World War II. Whoa, we are looking at an artifact here, aren’t we? Nowadays, it seems from the news that all young adult books are sparkly vampire dystopian fantasy bestsellers because adults read them or gritty real-world-of-fevered-dreams fests of sex and drugs that teenagers really deal with in books that teenagers read because they’re told to and only become news stories when someone wants to remove them from a school reading list.

I mean, in 1981, someone expected young readers to read about American history? Like battles and stuff, not about how America sux? I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around it. And this book is touted as the first in a series.

At any rate, I only remembered the basics of the battle before reading the book: Big deal, many Japanese carriers sunk, turned the tide of the war. Given that I know that much, it’s clear I’m not a 21st century young adult.

The books is short–135 pages–and it really only gives an overview of the events after the Coral Sea battle, where the Japanese hoped to lure out the remainder of the American fleet to destroy it, but the Americans had broken the Japanese code and managed to get the drop on them. Then, through (and sometimes in spite of) sacrifices and ill-fated bombing runs on the Japanese carriers, the Americans break the Japanese fleet.

It’s not a jingoistic book, and it’s not an academically detailed book, but it does blend striking moments with the ebb and flow of the engagement, so a (young adult) reader isn’t overwhelmed but does get a sense of warfare. Except when talking about the pilots, one does not realize how young these guys are.

So I enjoyed it and read it quickly, and I’ll be honest, I come out of it knowing only a little more than I had before–knowing which American carrier sank during the engagement and whatnot–but every little bit makes me a bit smarter, so I’ll take it. Combining this book with a recent viewing of The Karate Kid Part II sent me to the globe to relearn some of the topography of the Pacific Ocean, and I’d forgotten where Okinawa is in relation to Japan and where Midway Island(s) is relative to Hawaii. So the book has done me some good indeed.

I’m almost interested to the other books in this series.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Devil’s Pool: A History of Big Cedar Lodge by Charlie Farmer (1995)

Posted in Book Report, Books, History on June 28th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverWe spent a couple of days down at Big Cedar Lodge, a resort on Table Rock Lake owned by the Bass Pro Shops people, and the gift store had this book. I’m always interested in very localized history offerings, and this book is hyper localized. Whereas Webster Park: 1892-1992, Elm Ave., Heart of Webster, and North Webster: A Photograpic History of a Black Community, this book chronicles two houses.

Well, a little more than that.

The book starts out with allusions to the Devil’s Pool and its legends, including the story of an Osage named Wah ‘Kon Tah. The section covering this early history of the region is quite nebulous and abstract, as it would have to be. It’s also a bit of an elegy for the beauty of untamed wilderness versus the predations of man who builds stuff on it and ruins it.

The book gets historical when the land is purchased by a pair of fellows, a Worman and a Simmons, who build homes on it for country retreats during Great Depression I. The book looks at the men and their wives for a while and then goes into the sale and transfer of the property until it becomes the Devil’s Pool Dude Ranch in the 1940s. The book includes a number of first hand accounts from those years, but in the 1960s the owner sells it to a man who dies shortly thereafter in an automobile accident. In 1979, a fellow buys it from the Army Corps of Engineers and tries to turn it into a time-share property, but that doesn’t survive. Then the fellow behind Bass Pro Shops bought it and turned it into the excellent resort it is today, which includes some time shares on the property.

So it’s fittingly a short book: although the landscape has been there a while, there’s not a lot of history to report on the property except that people have moved through it. The author plays up the stories of strange apparitions and ghost stuff tarts it up a bit, where some people think that perhaps Mrs. Worman whose ashes were scattered on the property (although she did not die there) might lead to her haunting it. The structure of the book is not straight ahead in timelines, either–sometimes a person is mentioned and gives some account of his or her time there, so it goes beyond where the character was introduced, and after he or she is done speaking, we go back to the time period where he or she is introduced. That could have been smoothed out.

This piece ultimately reads as a for-hire piece, a sort of white paper for the lodge itself. Which is okay, but it’s not a grand historical document.

And let’s be honest: The one bit of history I’d like to know about is what happened to the purchasers of the time share from the 1980s when the Bass Pro people bought it. Because I just bought a time share in it, and I was assured by the 20 year old sales closer guy that we’re covered in the case of the company reorganizing. And I don’t believe him.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Rogue Angel: Forbidden City by Alex Archer (2007)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 30th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI first learned about this series from an advertisement in the Mack Bolan book, and when I saw an entry in the series down in Clever, I bought it. I picked this book up to read because:

  1. I just read an entry in the Rogue Warrior series, so it segued into another Rogue something series nicely.
  2. It was on that shelf.

The Rogue Angel series centers on an archeologist, a Lara Croft sort of archeologist (or an Indiana Jones sort of archeologist with a laptop). By the time this entry in the series comes along, she has recreated Joan of Arc’s sword, which she wears invisibly and can draw and use when needed–at which time it becomes visible. Two centuries-old wanderers, former student and teacher but now rivals, help her sometimes, but leave her in the dark mostly.

The book starts with Annja helping a Chinese man find his ancestor’s remains in a mining town near San Francisco. Creed does some research and pinpoints the location and exhumes the remains carefully, at which point the Chinese man would kill Annja for the belt buckle with the remains–but for the timely arrival of three marijuana growers afraid the DEA is onto their operation. Creed flees with the belt buckle and begins researching it. It might be the key to finding a lost Chinese City of Thieves–but a second component, a child’s toy, is in the hands of a Chinese CIA-trained assassin whose father was killed for the item.

The book is rich and vivid in a way that some of these series books (see A Daughter’s Revenge) are not. A number of different storylines come together–the story of the Chinese assassin, a Chinese archeologist near the City of Thieves, and Annja Creed’s dealings with television producers, and her benefactors. Sadly, though, they end up in a bit of a dungeon crawl in the lost city that slightly disappointed me. Also, Creed, our proxy, is a catalyst for the story, but she doesn’t understand what’s ultimately at stake because the old men don’t keep it from her.

Still, it’s a pretty nifty little paperback thriller. I liked it well enough that I’m thinking of ordering the first couple in the series from Amazon. That I’m going to buy other works by the author or in the series at retail price, new is the best endorsement of a book I give.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Churchill: In Memoriam by the Staff of the New York Times (1965)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 16th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThe New York Times threw together this book after Churchill’s death. It rounds up reactions to his death, statements from other world figures, and includes a brief biography of his life.

The biography is a bit weird. The bulk of it, the first chapter, deals with his leadership in Britain before and during World War II. The second chapter of the bio deals with his family’s origin and his early years. The third chapter of it deals with his political life after he lost the Prime Minister position after World War II. A final short chapter includes some of his aphorisms.

I’ve got quite a stack of Churchillenalia, including some of his books, some bios, and letters he exchanged with his wife. So this little paperback might be a gateway into those books. It’s a bit stiff of a read, but it’s respectful. I wonder if the newspaper would be capable of this sort of thing now, but I doubt twenty-first century purchasers of death-commemorative books want prose. Probably just pictures.

But it was worth reading for the summary of his life if nothing else.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Rogue Warrior II: Red Cell by Richard Marcinko and John Weisman (1994)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 15th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI picked up this book after reading A Daughter’s Revenge as a palate cleanser. I’d tried to read it soon after I read Rogue Warrior, but I stalled out. This time, however, it was just what I needed.

This book is a fictional account wherein Marcinko–as a fictional character–uncovers a set of smuggled nuclear weapons parts at an airport in Japan. He uncovers connections with a former Secretary of Defense who might be smuggling banned technology to the North Koreans. The former SecDef says he was investigating the matter himself, and Marcinko is called back to active service to look into the matter. He gets to put a team of SEALs together as Red Cell to test some bases and to look for those who would help the North Korean nuclear program.

The first person narrator voice of the book is coarse and vulgar, full of bravado and bombast. If you don’t mind that sort of thing, it’s an enjoyable read. Unfortunately, some of that takes away from the suspense of the actions, as it seems like they’re just playing video games until they’re ambushed and take some casualties, at which point you realize how little characterization the other people get–they’re only extensions of the narrator. This is consistent, though, with the voice, so I don’t know how hard to knock the book for it.

But I liked it, which is good, as I have others in the series.

As it is an early 1990s book (like The Day After Tomorrow and War in 2020), it takes place in a world I remember, but a world that is different from the one we live in now. The concerns then aren’t the same as the thriller concerns now, so worrying about the North Koreans getting nuclear weapons seems a little like chasing cattle who’ve escaped the barn. Or goats. I hear goats are worse.

But reading these books makes me feel like a reader in the 1950s and 1960s snapping up Alistair MacLean’s World War II thrillers. They were thrillers, sure, but they were safe thrillers set in a world where we know the good guys won. Of course, I read those same MacLean thrillers in the 1980s and 1990s. But I digress.

At any rate, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the next.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: A Daughter’s Revenge by J.R. Roberts (2008)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 14th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverIf you have ever said to yourself, "Man, this Zane Grey western is okay, but it really needs some explicit sex scenes in a number of variations!", this book is for you.

This book is the 323 book in the Gunsmith series of westerns, and the first of the twenty-first century men’s adventure novels I’ve read and the first Western men’s adventure novel. I’m not sure which explains the fact that there are more male appendages waved about than pistols. This book is copyright to Robert J. Randisi, and I presume that means he wrote it under the pseudonym. I previously reviewed Randisi’s Blood on the Arch, and I didn’t care for that book, either.

This book is a Western, set in Denver, and aside from a bit of horseback riding in the beginning, there’s no real sense it’s a Western. Someone’s taking potshots at The Gunsmith, the titular hero. This person keeps missing him, and he’s not sure what the message is. When he gets to Denver, he meets the daughter of a man whose death was laid at The Gunsmith’s hands many years ago, and the woman explains that her crack-shot sister is hunting for him. The woman ends up dead, and her death is also laid at the hands of the Gunsmith by the unsavory characters that are trying to do the Gunsmith in and are using the crack-shot daughter as a cat’s paw.

Then, there’s a gunfight. Also, some sex. Pretty much all the characters in the book have things to confess on Sunday. Then, there’s a gunfight. The end.

As I said, it could be a modern detective novel except for the occasional mention of horses. People are always getting into and out of cabs, for crying out loud. That’s no Western.

Yeek. I bought four in this series in Clever last month, and the remaining three are on the collapsed shelf. Perhaps I’ll move them.

When I’m in the mood for another western, perhaps I’ll try the Longarm series, some of which I’ve picked up at Friends of the Christian County Library sales over the years. But I’m almost afraid Longarm is a euphemism now.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (2013)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 13th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI’ve blogged about Daniel Woodrell twice before reading a book of his. I remarked in 2006 that his works seemed to serve the underbelly as the main course; then, I posted a note about an appearance of his in St. Louis when a high school near-acquaintance contacted me to promote it. Remember, gentle reader, back in the old days, I was in the top thousand blogs in the country, and my mention was worth something. Well, maybe not, and certainly not by 2006. But still.

Now, almost a decade later, I live in the Ozarks, Woodrell’s books have been made into Oscar-worthy films, and I had a small Christmas gift card that turned into a large purchase at Barnes and Noble, including this book. Note for posterity’s sake that this was Christmas 2013, and it only took me a couple of months to read the book. That means something, if only that I have a weird sense of what to read next.

At any rate, this piece is literary fiction, something I’ve avoided of late. Well, not avoided; when it comes time to read, I’ve favored popcorn style fiction in a genre over Literature, which for the most part means classical literature. But, as I often am when I bother to read a good piece of literary fiction or classic literature, I’m taken aback by how engrossing and engaging it is.

This book centers on an actual event, a dance hall explosion in 1928. It has a more modern frame story, wherein a grandson gleans the story from his grandmother, the sister of a victim of the explosion. The story itself is told in flashback, where the sister of the grandmother has a fling with a rich man for whom the grandmother works (hence, her story is the maid’s version).

The book features the modern jump-cut scenes dealing with the maid, her grandson and children and how they fared, the love affair, the rich man who had then lost the daughter, a St. Louis gang member on the run/hiding out but discovered, and a bunch of characters who have chapters because they were affected by the explosion. Unfortunately, this last bit serves mostly as padding–I know, in creative writing classes, we call these “nice little moments,” but they’re a bit short and don’t move the story along. I guess that’s color that you get in literary fiction that you don’t get in pulp paperbacks.

It’s an engaging book, and the writing is florid without being Victorian wallpaper overwhelming the plot and characters. I enjoyed it. I’ll probably pick up Winter’s Bone the next time I see it at a book sale.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Real Women Don’t Pump Gas by Joyce Jillson (1982)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 10th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book comes from a whole series of books that came out shortly after Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (which I read five years ago). Think of it as a 1980s response to the shifting in gender roles which has continued to this day. Reactionary–and I don’t mean that perjoratively, only they were reactions to the upcoming prevailing norms) responses like this, tongue-in-cheek but sort of true.

However, this book doesn’t resonate with me because I’m not a girl. I can’t understand, truly, the societal pressures upon women, especially women in the early part of the Reagan years.

The book rather has a bit of a dual nature of its satirical ideal of womanhood. It’s the uber-feminine princess and the hard-charging business woman. You know, fifty percent of this woman:

I didn’t find the book particularly amusing, but I didn’t find the original very funny, either.

I must have been conditioned by the matriarchy or something.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffith (1961)

Posted in Book Report, Books on May 9th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI read this book back in college in those heady days twenty years ago when I’d skip my classes in the core requirements (did your humble narrator actually get a D in a university-level class? Yes, yes, he did) to read in the library. That is before this book came upon its fiftieth anniversary edition and back when I might have been a little less skeptical of the book.

This was a very big deal when it came out, and it details the author’s experiment where he darkened his skin with some drugs and UV treatments and passed as a black man in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia in the November and December of 1958 or 1959. This book collects a series of articles he wrote for the magazine Sepia and includes some material about reactions after he published the stories.

As I mentioned, I read this book in college. I then read a collection of Langston Hughes poetry because the title comes from a Hughes poem (“Dream Variation”). That’s what I did in those days when I should be attending a college class: reading a book my high school sociology teacher (Mrs. Hutson) referred to once, and then following the chain. I’d also memorize a Hughes poem ("Dreams") which I would not burst out with during a college class of The Church and Racial Justice when Rebecca W– asserted that whites never learned their culture even though I could. Let’s just say that as a young man, a product of the projects where I was the minority and whatnot, that I thought some about The Race Question when it was a question and not an answer to every political debate.

So, fifty some years after the book’s publication and a pile of years after the first time I read it, I was less impressed.

Not with what Griffith did and maybe not even what he intended, but how he presented it.

As I mentioned, he has included a frame around the actual journey, wherein he talks about his decision to undertake the transformation and the aftermath. In part of the intro, he announces that he’s an expert on race relations. And there’s no reason given. Perhaps, in certain quarters in 1961, people knew him and knew this to be true, but he really should have gone into that.

Additionally, so much of the book is his interior life, his reactions to events, and his moralizing and sermonizing on the Race Question along with telling us how the Negro thinks. Again, there’s no background or source for his expertise or why we should take his word for it–except that he’s darkened his skin and has gone to Louisiana.

The actual events and interactions he includes in the book are sparse and bare-boned. He details the first day pretty concretely, including his association with a shoeshine stand owner and his arrival in New Orleans, his taking of a room, and a political meeting. Then we get a lot of overview about how far he has to walk, the infrequency of places where he can use the facilities, and a bit of concrete interaction with the shoeshine guys. He talks broadly about looking for work, but the concrete details are lacking. Then he goes to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, takes a room, freaks out about being in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, calls up a newspaper friend who picks him up and drives him out of Mississippi. Then he goes to the coast of Mississippi and begins a whirlwind tour of the south in his last couple of weeks.

So he never really settles in anywhere but New Orleans (for about two weeks) at the onset. So overall, the book takes on the flavor of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed or any of the modern journalistic escapades where a journalist parachutes into a different lifestyle for a short period of time and discovers that the experience conforms with his or her preconceived notions, but with a little touch of colorful flair that makes it interesting. It captures more the experience of being a white man passing as a black man in the south moreso than the experience of being a black man in the south.

Also, it could probably have done with a companion study of what his experience would have been travelling through New York City, Detroit, Chicago, and Bangor, Maine while his skin was darkened.

At any rate, it’s an interesting premise, and it’s an interesting book. It took Griffith some galls as big as church bells to do it. However, he could have presented the material more solidly, showing instead of so much telling.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Skin Tight by Gary Henderson (2007, 2013)

Posted in Book Report, Books on April 24th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI ordered this book based on a theatre review on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Web site.

Before we get into what I think of the book, I’m going to do a little aside about, and maybe Milwaukee in general. I remember when I was in school being amazed and impressed with how many concurrent productions you could catch at the Marcus Center downtown. In the height of the season, there were sometimes three or four different plays running at the same time in different auditoriums in the same building. Basically, it’s a multiplex of drama. Not including the other troupes down in south city or the smaller groups. Man, I went to a bunch of different productions my senior year, and I loved it–and I chastised people who were eager to leave Milwaukee after the university to go places with Culture. I lived in St. Louis, and I volunteered for a theatre group for a while and supported others, but it was nothing like Milwaukee. Of course, it could simply be that the theatre groups are scattered all over St. Louis, where the cultural scene in Milwaukee has a high density downtown.

Several times a week, has a theatre review, where someone puts in the paper–or at least its online version–a review of a local theatre company’s current production. This, too, differs from St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its online equivalent don’t bother with covering its theatre groups. That fell to smaller free newspapers in the region. Of course, I can’t compare it to Springfield, which is far smaller than Milwaukee, nor can I compare it to the Springfield News-Leader, which is essentially four twenty three year olds with Journalism degrees retyping police reports and penning a column a week on their life experiences as journalists.

So I’ve been reading the theatre reviews on, as I said, and it’s made me excited for drama. And I read the review for this play, and I would not mind seeing it performed. So I settled for ordering it and reading it.

It’s a short play–the review mentions it’s an hour long, and that translates into 37 pages including production notes. The story unfolds in a stylized manner, with a man and a woman by a wash tub as they recount their lives together and their memories. Although it’s set in the fifties or sixties and in New Zealand, the themes stand outside the time and place–like it should in good drama and, frankly, art. It’s actually a pretty simple plot–this is a one act, after all–and it has some choreographed scenes that are but stage instruction in printed form.

So I enjoyed it. It, and the ever-present theatre reviews, certainly make me want to go see some drama on stage. After a couple such, I might be inclined to try my hand at writing it again.

Oh, and on a trivia note, this is not the first time I’ve reviewed a book called Skin Tight.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Damned If You Do by Michael Brandman (2013)

Posted in Book Report, Books on April 21st, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI read this book right after Wonderland which really brings out the differences in the styles of Parker’s literary heirs.

Again, the Jesse Stone book has two unrelated plots: Jesse takes on the big corporation that owns a nursing home when he discovers an old friend being mistreated, and a young freelance prostitute winds up dead after playing two rival pimps against each other.

The tone and pace of the book, again, matches television writing more closely than Atkins’ Spenser novels, but it’s readable. I complained in the review of Fool Me Twice that the plot too closely matched Killing the Blues, and these plots differ, so that’s a plus. But it looks as though there’s going to be someone else on the Jesse Stone books in the future, so we’ll see if that takes a new direction.

And I guess I’ve not commented on this before, but there’s been a change in the continuity. The character Molly in the early books was an Irish girl, married and the mother of many. But in the films, the Irish girl was replaced with a sassy black woman. And in Brandman’s books, we’ve got the second Molly instead of the first. Unfortunately, there’s not much to the new Molly other than the sass. And the other recurring characters–Suitcase Simpson, Healy of the state police, and Vinnie Morris–are almost nothing but the name-checks and bits they play.

Still, it’s an all right read. Not as layered and without the depth of the Atkins books, but better than a bad bit of men’s adventure novel that I would have read instead.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Wonderland by Ace Atkins (2013)

Posted in Book Report, Books on April 20th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is the second of Atkins’ entries into the Spenser canon (Lullaby being the first), and it again captures the flavor of early Parker with some of the later tropes thrown in.

The plot centers around Henry Cimoli asking Spenser for some help. Someone is trying to buy Henry’s condo building and, when meeting resistance from some of the owners, has taken to tough stuff tactics to convince the old people to sell. Leaning back on leaners-on is Spenser’s balliwick.

So Spenser looks into it and finds a casino developer might be involved. Or the casino developer’s competition. And/or the mob. Then the casino developer turns up dead.

I won’t go too far into it, but it is a return to Spenser trying to figure out a puzzle of many unsavory characters and whatnot. A good plot, but we never do find out who killed the chauffeur (that’s an old mystery reader joke–there are no dead chauffeurs in this book–but that might be a bit of a spoiler).

I’ll say it again: Atkins brings the depths back to the books that Parker kinda left out towards the end. Unfortunately, he does rely a lot on characters from previous books (Gino Fish, Bernie Fortunato, Vinnie Morris, and so on), but maybe paying Spenser fans really dig this. Also, there’s the train-the-new-guy subplot that’s been a part of the series since Early Autumn. I suppose it’s just Spenser being Spenser, but it’s really old ground by now.

But I liked the book and I look forward to the next. Which is not something I’ve said about a Spenser novel in a long time.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom (1994)

Posted in Book Report, Books on April 19th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI have seen this book in a number of book fairs over the years. And yet, I’d never heard of it. Eventually, I gave in and picked up a copy. And then I picked that copy up.

But a bit of back story on this book:

Apparently, it was a big deal. That’s obvious from the number of copies out in the wild. A bit of research reveals that this book got a $2 million dollar advance for a first novel and hit the New York Times Best Seller list in 1994. If you read other reviews, you’ll find people saying it’s the best book ever. But.

You might not have heard of this book. For all its splash and its Amazon reviewers who can’t imagine life without it, the book is an okay crime thriller that just misses on a number of fronts. Beware: SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The story centers on an American doctor in Europe. He’s had a dalliance with a French woman he met at a conference in Switzerland, and he changes his schedule and plans to see her again even though they’d agreed their fling would end. While in Paris, he sees the man who killed his father on a Boston street some thirty years earlier, and the doctor attacks him. The doctor is apprehended by the police, but the murderer gets away. So the doctor hires a private eye to find him so the doctor can kill the man.

Of course, the man who murdered the doctor’s father was a hit man on the run from the vast organization that had hired him; this vast organization is on its way to the culmination of fifty years of research and conniving. “Organization”? Who are we kidding? The 1990s was the last gasp of the original Nazis, with books like The Apocalypse Watch and whatnot. The Nazis of World War II who hid after World War II accummulated money and influence and then, just as they began to die off and/or collect pensions in their adopted lands.

So the Nazi conspiracy is also after the hit man, who was part of a plot back in the day and remains a loose end that should have been tied up those years ago. And the Nazis are about to have a big plot come to fruition, and there’s a big reveal…..

So it’s standard thriller stuff, with an element of science thrown in: In a related subplot, an American detective consulting with Interpol investigates a set of headless bodies discovered and a bodiless head. Naturally, suspicion falls on the doctor visiting Europe. But Interpol discovers that the bodies have been frozen to almost absolute zero at some point. Hey, the father of the doctor had been working on something to do with scalpels working in extreme cold. In a related subplot, a stroke recovery victim flies to Germany to dine with the Nazi aristocracy and brings his physical therapist with him.

So it becomes pretty clear what’s going on early in the book: The Nazis are developing the technology for head transplants. And there are two biological twins or clones that are the perfect Aryan specimans. We all know where this is going, don’t we? Hitler’s head is going to appear at some point.

Someone sold the publishing house that they’d found a mixture of Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum here, and they’re not entirely wrong. But the book is just off, askew. You get some stilted thriller stuff, then a dash of the absurd. You get an everyman protagonist who does some very impressive things–stumbling into a hit by an elite Nazi team with a small caliber semiautomatic and polishing them off because they’re stunned by his harmlessness. Also, there’s the Hitler’s head thing.

At the end of the book, an insider in the conspiracy has a change of heart and brings the whole thing down with a couple blasts of explosives. The main bad guy, a second-gen Argentine Nazi, grabs a case from a deep bunker, gathers the love interest from police custodym, rushes to a peak in the Alps, and fights in a blizzard. The bad guy dies, the love interest is saved, and the cavalry comes. But in a flashback, as he recovers, the doctor muses on what happened on the mountaintop while he was half frozen, exhausted, and outmatched.

Spoiler: The love interest stabs the antagonist with a giant icicle while he’s engaged with the doctor.

Further spoiler: Although they didn’t say it (but, come on, we knew) and the other characters speculated that its contents included files and plans from the conspiracy, the last line reveals:

But the box landed near where Osborn lay in the snow, rolling over with its own weight and momentum. As it did, it came open and what was inside was revealed. And in the instant before it vanished over the edge, Osborn saw clearly what it was. It was the thing Salettl had left out. The thing Osborn could tell no one because no one would believe him. It was the real reason for √úbermorgen. Its driving essence. Its center core. The severed, deep-frozen head of Adolf Hitler.

But you know what? It falls into an Alpine crevice. Leaving room for a sequel, if you know what I mean.

Strangely, forget the head of Adolf Hitler and near-absolute-zero surgery on a molecular level. Apparently, the Nazis also invented a portable cooler capable of keeping frozen goods deeply frozen for days without making a sound or making people think it’s anything more than a large over-the-shoulder piece of luggage. Brothers and sisters, that’s where the money would be.

At any rate, I read the whole thing and kind of enjoyed it. Sure, the prose is a little stiff in places (those places are called “pages”), and it careens wildly into the absurd in places. But it’s kinda what a cult movie is like in a book form. So bad it’s good.

Folsom has published five books and has a background in films and television–which shows a bit in the prose, I bet. Perhaps his latter books are better in a straight ahead fashion. Perhaps I’ll see, but none are as ever-present at book fairs as this one was, as it sold over a million copies. Which puts it only a couple orders of magnitude beyond my novel sales to date.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen (1930, 1980)

Posted in Book Report, Books on March 27th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThe copy of this book that I own is the 50th Anniversary Edition. Ponder that for a moment. This is the second Ellery Queen novel, and it dates from 1930. The mass market paperback I have is from 1980. Ellery Queen (the original duo) wrote a bunch, and his name appeared on other books and short stories as well as other media and a mystery magazine, to the extent that his works were still in print for fifty years. Also, do the arithematic, and discover that the fiftieth anniversary edition was thirty-four years ago. Man, we’re old, you and I.

At any rate, this book revolves around a murder in a New York Department Store, the kind that only New York city has or had. The wife of the owner of the department store is found dead in a furniture display one morning, and Ellery Queen and his father have to puzzle out why she was killed and why her body was hidden in such a fashion as to delay discovery until a certain time. Signs point to the woman’s missing daughter, who is probably a heroin addict. And Inspector Queen has to tackle a heroin ring and a new Police Commissioner.

The book has a locked room feeling that other Queen books (as I recall) do not, so it was pretty dry going, and the whole thing a bit gimmicky to fit into the locked room subgenre as much as it does. But it’s early in Queen’s writing career, and he got better. Or I was more patient with these books when I was reading them in great detail in the 1980s.

A couple quick bits of real life impact of reading Queen:

  • The book answers the question Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen? that I posed last year when I used the expression making one’s toilet. In this book, Queen completes his toilet.
  • I had to write the word co√∂rdinate while reading this book, and I included the umlaut.

Coming soon, I shall drop French phrases into my conversation, and I’ll make sure they sound italicised.

Overall: The book’s not the best of Queen if I remember correctly. Good enough if you’re into the locked room stuff, but I’ve moved away from it. Not bad enough to make me swear off Queen stories. I’ve looking through the archives here, and I don’t have any book reports for Queen novels. Has it been ten years since I read another? It probably won’t be another ten years.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: God, Man, and Archie Bunker by Spencer Marsh (1975, 1976)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Television on March 26th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverWhy did I pick up this book? Because I’m old enough to remember who Archie Bunker was, and because I’ve taken to picking up slim mass market paperbacks to stick into my pockets when I might have a bit of time to read when I’m out and about and don’t want to spend it all on my smartphone.

This book is a small polemic written by a Presbyterian minister right as the television show All in the Family was coming into the fore. The minister sets up little chapters where he explains some about Archie, and why he’s a bad Christian whose beliefs and bombasm are not in line with the Christianity he sometimes tries to espouse. That’s about it. Here’s a chapter on Archie and the Bible, Archie and the Ten Commandments, Archie and the Prodigal Son, “The Good Edith”, and pretty much in each he leaps off from some incident in the show into a mini-sermon.

As an intersection between theology and pop-culture, it’s bound to be a little heavier on the latter, but it’s an unconvincing little book.

Funny thing about Archie Bunker. As I understand it, he was built to be the bad guy, but people related to him. He was a traditional, albeit crude and poorly spoken, member of the old generation that was out of touch with the modern, sixties person. But people related to his problems in understanding the changes going on in society and with those who would compel him to change. And somehow that gruff character carried a sitcom twelve seasons. Kind of like the modern day Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation. Although this latter character was originally intended to be a foil for the star’s character, he was a man’s man Libertarian, and he’s the one from whom Internet memes are made. Because people even in the twenty-first century relate. And the sitcom writers and producers are shocked by what sells. Because they’re professionals or something.

Books mentioned in this review: