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:

Book Report: What Would Machiavelli Do? by Stanley Bing (2000)

Posted in Book Report, Books on March 11th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, I enjoyed Bing’s novels Lloyd What Happened and You Look Nice Today. So when I saw this book with its subtitle The Ends Justifies The Meanness, I picked it up.

It’s about 150 pages of brief chapters covering things Bing posits Machiavelli would do, such as He would like when necessary, He would make a virture out of his obnoxiousness, He would fire his own mother if necessary, and so on. Each little maxim is given a couple of paragraphs or maybe a couple pages of support and elaboration, often with examples of well-known CEOs or leaders behaving badly.

Even though it’s 150 pages, it’s a schtick that goes on a couple ticks too long. It depends upon the common pop-cultural shallow reading of Machiavelli, where the people see it as a justification for people in power to behave badly instead of an examination about the way power works and how to best achieve and retain it.

It looks like Bing has a number of books in this ilk available; I’m sure not going to race out and get them. If I find them at a book fair, I might give them another whirl, but in the long form, I like his fiction. To much nonfiction Bing at one time might be too much of a good thing.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Spectrum II edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (1962, 1964)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 23rd, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is a fifty-year-old collection of science fiction short stories from some of the luminaries of the business.

It includes:

  • “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin. In a world where individual humans are split into two distinct personalities through medication and the personalities take turns with the body, one man stops taking his meds and begins to have a forbidden affair with his wife’s alternate personality.
  • “Bridge” by James Blish. This might be the first of his non-Star Trek work I’ve read. A West in decline builds a scientific installation in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and workers use virtual reality gear to man repair and building robots in the hostile environment. A supervisor, crankier than the other employees, might be going mad. Notable now for projecting the US-Soviet conflict as lasting hundreds of years into the future.
  • “There Is A Tide” by Brian Aldiss. In a future Africa, a grand planner runs into some difficulty with his grand plans when mother nature does not work according to the plan, leading to extensive, catastrophic flooding. Also, thrown into the history as an aside, all white people have been killed, although I’m not sure whether this means in Africa or worldwide and what bearing this has on the story.
  • “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick. After four years of a devestating US-Soviet war (those guys again!), the United States has developed small robots that can quickly infiltrate and destroy Soviet installations. But down in their automated factories, the robots have built themselves new models and unleashed them on both sides of the human conflict. Frankly, I found this to be the most contemporarily chilling story, but the main character of the story is entirely too credulous. Why aren’t more people in Philip K. Dick yarns untrusting?
  • “The Feeling of Power” by Isaac Asimov. Many years in the future, a low level technician amazes his betters with his ability to perform computations without a computer. This might give man an advantage in a long-running war with an alien (I think) adversary.
  • “Sense from the Thought Divide” by Mark Clifton. A researcher tries to use PSI energy to create antigravity pods.
  • “Resurrection” by A.E. Van Vogt. A research team from an invasive, conquering, and genocidal race visits a planet that had housed an advanced civilization. As part of their protocol in investigating new homes for their ever-burgeoning population, the resurrect a specimen of the civilization to find out what happened to it. Unfortunately, this specimen is very advanced indeed and outwits them in their efforts.
  • “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner. A man leases some rooms to some very strange people who come from very far away. He begins to suspect they’re from the future, and his house is a sought-after spot for a very nice May with some hints that something bad is coming. And it does.

Overall, in retrospect, these are some pretty grim tales that don’t necessarily present an optimistic view of the future. However, they’re very imaginative in that they go off in a variety of directions, and you’re not sure where they might end up. So each has the potential to be a treat in its own right. I liked the book, and I think this is shaping up to be a science fiction year for me already.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Rebel Moon by Bruce Bethke and Vox Day (1996)

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

Book coverI picked up this book as I was browsing my bookshelves and the name Vox Day popped out at me. I’ve visited his blog a couple of times recently (and how recently that might actually be is subject to speculation, as we will see below), so that’s good enough reason to read the book immediately.

The book is based on a video game, but I’m no stranger to books based on video games (see The Dig or Halo: First Strike). However, the authors of the book are actually responsible for the game itself, so that means they have a greater understanding of it and can put the story they would want you to play into the book, kinda like I ran Dungeons and Dragons games back in the day: No matter what you players do, you’re not getting in the way of the good story I’ve put together.

The book deals with a lunar rebellion. It seems to me I just read a book about a lunar rebellion. Well, I did. In 2009. That’s the second time recently I’ve been stunned that so much time has passed since I read a particular book.

At any rate, this book is pretty good as a read, but. It jumps right into the rebellion, with the beginning of the rebellion and not a lot of leading material as to why the moon’s colonies are rebelling. The lunar colonists have secreted parts for weapons and materiel over the course of a decade (it is discovered). So the UN sends up Peacekeepers, which are surprised by the resistance. Then the UN turns to the Germans, and it gets complicated as they eventually start pushing the lunar rebels back.

It’s got engaging characters, including a proxy for the game-playing reader, a gamer himself who’s a good hacker. The technology isn’t dated in the book, as it’s the beginning of the Internet era so the projections aren’t squirrelly in other directions from where we’ve gone in these twenty years. There are a couple of spots where they shout-out to the video game — finding a hidden elevator, for example–but it’s got some depth that’s not grafted on.

Unfortunately, it builds to a point, and then, instead of a climax, we have the big reveal which is not exactly a climax and no resolution. After all, there’s a sequel to wrap it up. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t turn me off to more books by the author if I should find them in my immense stacks. But I’m not so invested that I’m ordering the sequel right this minute.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Captive of Gor by John Norman (1972, 1974)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 8th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAfter I finished The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, it felt the right time to delve back into the Gor series. I was taken a bit aback how long it’s been since I read the previous book in the series–I read Raiders of Gor in October 2007.

This book, though, was a bad place to resume. It’s not a Tarl Cabot story. Instead, it’s one of the one-off stories featuring a woman on Gor. The first, actually. It deals with a spoiled high society girl from Manhattan who’s taken to Gor to be a slave. And so she does.

The basic story arc is that the ship in which she is a passenger is shot down; she’s found by a slaver, trained to be a slave, gets rescued by some Forest Girls who are like Amazons, except they’re really just ‘liberating her’ to sell her to someone; she’s delivered to that someone in a building in the woods, but she escapes from that to be recaptured by guards of her original slaver. She’s sold and sold again, finally becoming the property and lover of a leader of a town, but he sells her, and she goes from owner to owner until getting pressured into an attempt on a merchant’s life.

That’s the high view. The details and bulk of the book are in the politics of the slaves, how this character is a weak liar, thief, and betrayer of other slaves. She’s never really redeemed in any fashion except (perhaps according to the ideology of the book) that she becomes a perfect slave.

There are hints and foreshadowing that she’s been chosen to be part of something, so I’d hoped that would come out at some point, but ultimately, it gets related very hurriedly in the last chapter, where she’s part of an assassination plot. At that point, things foreshadowed and hinted at are dumped into a couple of paragraphs, and it resolves kinda poorly.

So I was disappointed with this book, and I’ve got at least three remaining on my shelves. I might pick up another one soon–before 2021, I would hope. You can see a little bit as the series progresses, or at least I can looking back to my reports of the books, as to how Tarl Cabot gets to do a lot of different things like Conan did. He’s a pirate, he’s a warrior, he’s a slave. Norman really owed those old pulp books a debt, and he repays them pretty well.

Just not in this book.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Apple Man by Horace Conner (1987)

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

Book coverThis is a fascinating book, especially on the meta level.

It is the autobiography of Horace Conner, born in 1919. Here’s how he puts it in the first lines of the book:

I was born on May 15, 1912 in Cotton County, Oklahoma, the southern part of Oklahoma on the Little Red River. I was the second child. The year I was born my father’s house was blown away in a cyclone.

And we’re off.

The book chronicles, in some order, his youth in a large, blended family; his businesses throughout the Depression with his father, particularly working on farms and orchards; his drafting into World War II and his service in the Navy and in post-surrender Japan; then his return to the United States, his failed marriage, his carousing and carrying on with women; and then his jobs after the war, including time in a produce market and a distribution center for Marshall Fields in Kansas City.

It’s a life of some dude who didn’t do particularly heroic things or live a particularly memorable life. But the voice is complex and engaging, or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

He’s humble, saying he wasn’t very good at writing at school, but here he’s written the book. He does a lot of humble bragging, where he does something and throws in that someone who saw him do it thinks he’s the best they’ve ever seen at it; I’m not sure if he is actually humblebragging because he’s good at it and wants affirmation of it or if he’s throwing it in to say it’s because he’s showing us he is too good at something. Some of the things he’s done that are less than heroic are just dropped in, like selling stuff from the Navy on the black market. But he also throws in stuff that he does that’s all right, like feeding Japanese war orphans from the back of his ship. He admits that he’s a bit of a carouser and not good relationship material, but that’s matter-of-fact and he doesn’t regret it or think it’s immoral or counterproductive. He goes out of town on a pleasure trip and ends up missing a day of work, and the excuse he gives his boss is that he was in jail in Sedalia. That’s his best excuse. And the manager buys it and keeps him on. What does that say outside the text of the book?

Most tellingly, he mentions that he wanted to have children and that he enjoyed time with his stepson while he was married, but he leaves no admitted progeny. He talks about retiring and picking up his small entrepreneurial ways, delivering some produce and selling it from his trucks. But he doesn’t much mention church–although he claims to read the Bible, particularly Proverbs. And he talks a little about his methodology of research at the library to make sure he gets his dates right in the book.

But he never explains why he wrote the book.

It’s not for his kids. Perhaps his nieces and nephews? I don’t know. For someone who claimed to not be a good writer, he didn’t do badly. But why did he do it? The writing of this book does not necessarily jibe with the simple man described within it.

As I said, on the meta level, it’s fascinating. And it wasn’t a bad read (better than An Ozark Boy’s Story for example) but there’s no real climactic payoff. After all, this is the life of a man. Also, gentle reader, it’s apparently $125 on the Internet, so you’ll probably not pick it up.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Poetry for Cats by Henry Beard (1994)

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

Book coverThis book was a part of my beautiful wife’s collection until she decided to winnow her collection down. I culled the discards for books I wanted, and so I got this one. Which I might have gotten for her as a gift in the swirling clouds of the past.

This book is a collection of poems as written by famous poets’ cats. You’ve got “The Cat’s Tale” by Chaucer’s cat, “Vet, Be Not Proud” by John Donne’s cat, “Kubla Kat” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cat, and so on.

They’re very clever, and I felt very clever and/or well-read for recognizing most of the source material. It only cost me $40,000 plus interest in an English degree for that.

But, as with my riff about the loss of allusion in heavy metal music, I have to wonder if there are many Generation X-level people who would enjoy this book or if there are any members of later generations that would get them at all. Some, I suppose, but not many. Ah, life. There is no before-me, there is no after-me, there is only during-me.

At any rate, as I said, I enjoyed the brief little book, and the book made me want to re-read the poems they were based on. Did you know I used to be able to recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory? Indeed, I used to do it at poetry open-mic nights in St. Louis, and I impressed my beautiful wife (then my beautiful girlfriend)’s mother, an English teacher in high school, by reciting it to her the first time we met. But that’s been a long time. I should work on re-memorizing those things.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: You Must Remember This 1978 by Betsey Dexter (1995)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 25th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book was designed as a gift for graduating seniors. It’s got a little place for a to and from in the beginning and a message. Given that 1995 was about seventeen years from 1978 (and ninteen years from now, old man), I’m deducing here.

It’s a little book of tidbits, a couple lists about news stories and pop culture in the year 1978.

I was six in 1978, so I don’t remember any of the news from that time. I mean, I do know of the things now: the Camp David Accords, Jim Jones, Sid and Nancy, and so on, but I don’t remember knowing them at the time. The first news things I think I can recollect are gas lines, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.

The only pop-cultural things I knew then were the television programs: Laverne and Shirley number 1, Happy Days number 2. But I know of the music (“Night Fever” the number one record, higher than “Stayin’ Alive”. Really?) and the books (#1: If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?) because the cultural impact is more resonant over the years than the news items themselves.

Still, it’s a good reprise to bring you back a bit and maybe freshen things up if the Jeopardy! people summon me for an audition this year.

And, strangely enough, it’s probably a quicker read than this blog post was.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard (2003)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 23rd, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAh, now this book is a little more manly that decoupagistry.

This book is the first of a three-volume set that includes all of the Conan stories in the original order, which is to say not chronological order according to Conan’s point of view. Howard wrote just a bunch of stories from Conan’s life with a handy history guide he created after a couple of the stories.

For those of you who don’t know, the Conan stories are set in a prehistoric age called the Hyborean Age wedged between the fall of Atlantis and the rise of our recorded civilizations. They’re centered around a land mass similar to Europe, but different enough. Conan is a king fighting assassins, a pirate, a mercenary, and a bunch of different things as he swashbuckles through a series of adventures that are fresh enough in the beginning, but at the end of the volume start to become just a touch formulaic. As they would, being the inspiration for many knock-offs we’ve all seen in film since then and have read other stories (Brak the Destroyer, I’m looking at you–John Jakes endorses the Conan stories with a quote on the cover, and he’s identified as the author of North and South, but I remember him most as a writer of a couple of collected volumes of stories similar to this).

It’s definitely sword and sorcery, as the gods, demons, and summoning make up many parts of plot points. Some of the descriptions are even Lovecraftian–and it comes as no surprise, as Howard and Lovecraft corresponded and worked for the same editors and magazines. Conan stories are a bit like Lovecraft stories where humanity gets to hit back.

In addition to the stories, there are a couple of introductory and academic essays explaining the Importance of Howard and a bit of his writing chronology. They’re okay if you don’t take them too seriously and don’t mind skipping past it. I don’t know why I want my actual histories to be written by homers who appreciate and somewhat applaud or respect their subject, but I get a little irritated when editors and literature majors do that with fiction.

The book also includes the aforementioned history of the Hyborean age that Howard wrote to keep his notes and stories straight, some maps in his hand, and some fragments and drafts. It also includes his first draft of his first Conan story. When you compare them directly, you get a pretty good sense of how editting can improve writing. I’m a poor editor, as readers of my books can attest, but this example offers a stark example of the benefits.

So I enjoyed the book, but given its length and the fact that it is short stories means it took me longer than I would have liked to have read it. So although I own the other volumes, I don’t expect to dive right into them immediately. But I look forward to them.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Modge Podge Rocks by Amy Anderson (2011)

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

Book coverThis book is the first book I’ve read this year, and it’s the end of January. My weeks and nights have been fairly busy through this part of the year, friends, and I’m suddenly afraid that I will never again hit the hundred-books-a-year pace I sometimes feebly use to rationalize my hundred-books-a-weekend book buying sprees.

And I got this book from the library, no less, something to flip through during football games. I wasn’t even that good about flipping through books during games this year, and there are no more games, alas. Where was I? Oh, yes, Modge Podge Rocks.

It’s basically a book about decoupage, which is gluing and shellacking paper or similar material to other material. Modge Podge is a popular compound for doing this. You brush some on the surface to which you want to adhere the decorations, press on the decorations, and layer more Modge Podge over the top. There’s not a lot to it, and you can have some interesting effects on stuff.

This book started out as a blog where the author did some decoupage and posted it, and later other people submitted things. And the author got a book deal. Strangely, one of the guest designers is Cathie Fillian, whose television program Creative Juice served as the inspiration for my forays into crafting.

So I’ve done some decoupaging before based on the inspiration from Creative Juice, I’ve gotten away from it and the whole crafting thing because my ideas have outpaced my skill level with these things, which leads to reluctance to start something new.

But I’ll try it again. After all, I have most of a jar of Modge Podge left, and I’d hate for it to go to waste. And by “to waste,” I mean “for twenty five cents at my estate sale.”

So this book has reminded me about this particular crafting style and could serve as a good introduction to those who aren’t familiar with the craft.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Nightmare in New York by Don Pendleton (1971)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 1st, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is The Executioner in New York, blowing things up and shooting Mafia.

The title says New York, but it could be anywhere, of course. The sense of place is pretty much limited to the title. You get more sense of place and time from Nightmare in Manhattan, for crying out loud. And it’s a series of set pieces much like the rest of the books.

Sorry, I read it hard on the heels of Hard Magic, so it suffers by comparison. A lot.

So now I look at the shelves full of Bolan titles with a little trepidation.

Books mentioned in this review: