Book Review: The Weird Ones

Book Review: The Weird Ones by Frederik Pohl, Poul Anderson, Milton Lesser, Eando Binder, Mack Reynolds, Sam Sackett & L. Sprague de Camp

Weird

This is an anthology of 1950s science fiction published in 1962.  In the Fifties, SF became more “thinky” than in the pulp era, with an emphasis on the soft sciences like psychology and sociology.  While still rather staid in certain areas, which would be radically updated with the New Wave in the 1960s, Fifties SF came closer to literature.  This was the first book printing for these stories, which is why the cover calls them rare.

A preface by H.L. Gold discusses the need for neologism in science fiction, and how it compares to real world neologism.

“Small Lords” by Frederik Pohl has a first contact situation go horribly wrong.  Can the Earthmen somehow communicate their peaceful intentions before they all die?

“Sentiment, Inc.” by Poul Anderson concerns a scientist who’s developed a way to influence people’s emotions and is determined to use it to make the world a better place.  Even if it means what some people would consider treason…or worse.  Period sexism is evident in the use of women as “rewards” rather than as people with agency in their own right.

“Name Your Tiger” by Milton Lesser is about a Mars colony threatened by a killer that can become your worst fear.  The thinky bit here is what exactly constitutes a greatest fear.  The man who says “goldfish” is lying.

“Iron Man” by Eando Binder is even heavier on the psychological aspects.  A downtrodden man develops the delusion that he’s a robot.  A psychiatrist attempts to help him, but is it too late?

“The Hunted Ones” by Mack Reynolds is set in a future where humanity has decided that Zaroff was the hero of “The Most Dangerous Game.”  Their alien prey finds a way to remind them that “alien” doesn’t just mean odd-looking.

“Hail to the Chief” by Sam Sackett has a professor who believes that the government should be run by smart people discover that this is actually true of the American government.  Be careful what you wish for.

And “Impractical Joke” by L. Sprague de Camp involves an expedition to an alien planet disrupted by a bully’s trick on a mentally ill man.  A story where the joke isn’t one bit funny.

A good selection of stories, though rather dated.  Worth looking for.

Book Review: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle

Book Review: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle by Blaize & John Clement

Cradle

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This is an Advance Reading Copy, so minor changes may be made in the final product.

The cover is adorable, a kitten bottle-feeding in a cradle.  This scene does not appear in the book, or anything remotely close to it.  But aww…

This is the eighth book about Dixie Hemingway, a former sheriff’s deputy in the Florida Keys who is now employed as a pet sitter.  She runs into more than her fair share of murder and mayhem in these cozy mysteries.  Blaize Clement is now deceased, and her son John Clement wrote the book from her notes.

In this one, Dixie is out walking a dog when she finds an exotic bird lying by the road.  Nearby is a woman who’s just given birth, a woman who begs not to be taken to a doctor.  To make Dixie’s life even more complicated, one of her clients turns up dead, a friend disappears after leaving a cryptic voice message, and the handsome attorney Dixie likes makes a move to deepen their relationship.

I have not read the previous books in the series, but it’s a serviceable installment.  Many scenes seem designed to check in with characters from previous books, which gives the feel of comfortable shoes.  The ending could serve as a decent place to stop the series should the sales not do well or Mr. Clement run out of usable notes.

There’s some dubious handling of evidence towards the end; I’m pretty sure that as a former deputy sheriff, Dixie should know better, but it’s needed to set up the climax.

I liked this book, but the hardcover is scheduled to retail at $24.99.  I’d recommend trying out earlier books in the series to see if you’re enchanted enough to pay full price, or waiting for paperback.,

Book Review: Koko

Book Review: Koko by Peter Straub

Koko

Four Vietnam veterans, among the very few remaining from their old unit, meet at the Vietnam War Memorial’s dedication.  One of them has noticed a series of murders that indicate another member of their unit is alive and a serial killer.  He convinces the others to go searching for Koko.  What they don’t realize is that Koko is also searching for them.

This is a meandering thriller by the author of Ghost Story.  Much of the story is spent chasing false leads, and it’s not for nothing that the nominal leader of the group, Harry Beevers, is known as the “Lost Boss.”  Indeed, his bad decisions make much of the storyline possible.

There are some very good bits–I was moved by the scenes at the Memorial, and there’s some great descriptions of the various places the characters visit.  Most of the protagonists are broken one way or another, and their conflicting interpretations of events help keep up the interest.

TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse and sexualized violence.  Also, while the author is pretty even-handed, many of the characters indulge in period racism, sexism, homophobic slurs and transphobic slurs.  There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl subplot, which I know annoys some people.  Milwaukee residents may find the depiction of their city rather insulting.

Some of the characters from this book show up in a kind of sequel, which I am told is better.  If you’re a thriller fan, and you run across this used, get it, it’s worth one read at least.

Book Review: Journeyman Wizard

Book Review: Journeyman Wizard by Mary Francis Zambreno

Journey

Jermyn Graves is a spellmaker, a rare kind of wizard that can reshape old spells for new purposes, and even create new spells for other wizards to use.  Or rather, he will be once he finishes his journeyman training with the only master spellmaker in the land.  When Jermyn arrives at the isolated village of Land’s End, however, he finds that the winter cold is more than matched by a chilly reception from certain people.

Lady Jean Allons’ household has been struck by tragedy and family rancor, making for tricky navigation for the young wizard.  When tragedy strikes again,Jermyn must use his training and the help of his skunk familiar Delia to solve the mystery before he himself is condemned to die.

This is the second in a young adult fantasy series about Jermyn, the first being A plague of Sorcerors.  It’s a pleasant light read.  While Jermyn is a talented wizard beyond his years, his inexperience shows, and he lets prejudice get the better of him when dealing with a local hedgewitch.  Jermyn’s seventeen in the story, but there’s nothing that makes it unsuitable for younger teens.

The worst thing I can say about the book is that it’s a little forgettable–it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized I had read it before and thus already knew who the murderer was.  Check your local library for this and the previous book if student wizards are your cup of tea.

Book Review: Warrior of Scorpio

Book Review: Warrior of Scorpio by Alan Burt Akers

Scorpio

This is the third in the Prescot of Antares planetary romance series.  For newer readers who might not have seen the term before, a “planetary romance” is a subgenre of science fiction in which an Earthling (or someone of Terran extraction) is transported to and stranded on an Earthlike planet with a savage set of local civilizations.  He (and it’s almost always a “he”) will then proceed to kick butt thanks to his superior Earth musculature and training, kill or ride exotic beasts, and fall in love with a princess (who will eventually return the favor.)   The John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the granddaddy of the subgenre.

In this case, Dray Prescott is an Eighteenth Century sailor plucked from Earth to the planet Kregen, which orbits Antares in what we call the Scorpio constellation.  This is the work of the enigmatic Star Lords who drop him in various situations that they want resolved.  In previous volumes, he became nigh-immortal along with his beloved, Princess Delia, only to be snatched back to Earth.  Once again on Kregan, he led a slave revolt, which was apparently a little too successful.

In this volume, Dray Prescot is snatched from the rebellion, but manages to avoid being sent to Earth, instead being dumped onto an isolated farm just in time to save a woman and child from invading “half-men.”  He also saves enslaved archer Seg Segutorio, who joins Prescot on his journeys.  By good luck, Dray is reunited with Delia, and they decide to go back to her kingdom to finally get hitched.  She has an airship to take them over the dangerous Hostile Territories, but things are never that simple in an adventure story….

Good stuff:  Plenty of fast-moving action–our heroes are in peril on a regular basis from all sorts of weather, beasts and people.  If you like the manly man sort of protagonist, Prescot is certainly that, but is anti-slavery so we know he’s a good guy.

Not so good stuff:  Planetary romance tends to have some racism and sexism problems.  The former is indicated by the word “half-men” (and Prescott often mentions in his narration that he learned better about the various races of Kregen later.)  The sexism comes on stronger, with women being in the story to be rescued by Prescot and/or throw themselves at him.  (This volume does pass the Bechdel test with a very brief conversation about botany before the women turn their attention back to Prescot.)  One notable scene has two women who are not Dray Prescot’s love interest fighting over which one of them should be.

When the subject of rape comes up, a minor character allied to Prescot indulges in victim-blaming, and no one disputes him (he vanishes from the story shortly thereafter, fate unknown.)  And there is a scene that is no question about it headed for tentacle porn before Prescot breaks free and kills the critter.  It’s not nearly as awful with the sexual politics as Gor, but is well below Barsoom.

Other stuff:  The framing device is that Dray Prescott was temporarily on Earth in the 1970s and dictated the story into a set of cassette tapes, some of which have gone missing.  Thus the author can skip ahead through slow bits or areas where he got stuck.

Overall:  Not your best entry into planetary romance; look up the John Carter books.

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Nick

Nick Carter, master detective, is a character with a long history, in three distinct phases.  He started in 1886 in stories most associated with the dime novels, was reinvented in 1933 for the pulps, and then again in 1964 as “Nick Carter Killmaster” for a long running series of action paperbacks.  It’s the 1930s incarnation that this volume focuses on.

The house name for the writers of Nick Carter stories was Nick Carter; the first story in this volume, “Marked for Death” is by Richard Wormser.  It’s Nick’s pulp magazine debut, and establishes Nick as a master of disguise and detection who isn’t afraid to use the three revolvers he carries.  While more violence-prone than his Nineteenth Century incarnation, Nick is still more cerebral than hard-boiled.

Nick is called to Boston from his usual New York haunts by a friend whose father has been  murdered and is now being hounded for money he supposedly owned.  Problem is that last time he was in town, Nick Carter showed up the Boston police, and they are not going to be cooperative.  Warning:  Nick does not like Pomeranians, and casually kills one to test a theory.

“The Impossible Theft,” by Thomas C. McClary, is from 1934.  It involves the theft of a quarter-million dollars from a bank in a manner which seems, frankly, impossible (and is never satisfactorily explained.)  As a seeming side note, a cheap replica idol used to decorate the bank also vanishes.  Nick Carter quickly connects this with the visit of a certain Maharajah to New York and infiltrates his Westchester mansion as a magician.

This story is much more fanciful than the first, and invokes the work of Charles Fort, as well as heavy doses of Orientalism and “the mysteries of the East.”  People from South Asia are likely to find the depiction of the Maharajah and his court laughable, insulting or both, despite Nick’s new-found respect for some of their number.

The script for the first episode of “The Return of Nick Carter” radio series is also included.  “The Strange Dr. Devolo” was written by Walter B. Gibson (scribe of the Shadow) and Edward Gruskin.   The seemingly immortal mad scientist is using a weird crystal to hypnotize wealthy people into believing they’re famous people from the past.  Nick has to track him down using secretary Patsy as a decoy and expose the strange doctor’s trickery.

The volume is rounded out by Nick Carter’s comic book incarnation from 1947, in “The Lucky Stiff” by Bruce Elliott and Bob Powell.  Nick and Patsy go to the horse races, but the fix is in–in more ways than one!  Despite the murder, this is a lighthearted tale that ends on a laugh.

There’s also several text pieces that introduce the various aspects of Nick Carter’s career.

Overall:  While not up to the quality of the greats, these are some rip-roaring pulp tales.  If you’re willing to put up with the period racism, you should be able to enjoy them as examples of one of American lowbrow literature’s enduring characters.

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

I bought this book directly from the author, who markets it by going around to conventions in person.  He’s hoping that by the time he reaches the third or fourth book in the series, he’ll thus have an inbuilt audience.  I will say that it seems to have done well at getting readers to actually review the book on Goodreads.  Since it’s a first novel, I’m going to be a bit more nitpicky than I otherwise might.

When political scheming by Prince Barok of the Zoviyan Empire against his possibly more evil half-brother Prince Yarik backfires horribly, the young royal finds himself going into exile.  Accompanied only by Leger, an alcoholic war hero who’s been appointed his alsman (head servant) as a slap in the face, Barok finds himself ruling the remote and dilapidated province of Enhedu, whose people (and the ghosts of the title) are less than happy to have him.

Soon, Prince Barok is joined by his one faithful servant, Dia, a concubine who has her reasons for being grateful to the otherwise less than admirable prince.  It’s about this time that Barok learns a few things about his heritage he wasn’t aware of, and that his exile might be less coincidence than fate…or someone’s plan.  Now Barok must somehow restore Enhedu’s prosperity and prevent its people from being forced into slavery.

There are four first-person narrators, Barok, Leger, Dia and Geart (Prince Barok’s former bodyguard, who spends much of this volume in prison or slavery.)  This can get confusing, as most of them have very similar narration styles–Barok’s more distinct at first, until his personality changes.  With the switching back and forth, it takes a fair amount of time before it’s clear where the plot is going.

Quite a bit of time is spent on the community building part of the plotline; the author’s researched well, but this does require some patience on the readers’ part.  The volume is illustrated, some maps, some scene-setting photographs and diagrams, and a couple of handwritten notes that are a bit hard to read (especially the one that is supposed to be hard to read.)

I do see a lot of potential here, but this was perhaps a little ambitious for a first book.  I noticed a tendency to overdo the negative qualities of some of the villains, for example.  A neighboring lord isn’t just greedy, he’s fat, ugly, balding, rude and illiterate.  A meddlesome woman isn’t just self-righteous and judgmental  she’s also fat, lazy, nagging, frigid and either doesn’t understand how pregnancy works or tells easily spotted lies about it.

This is also a book that could use a glossary.  There’s three different military units that all have names that start with “H”, for example, and that took some leafing back and forth to figure out which one was which.

This is a relatively low-magic setting, at least until near the end, when one of the characters really gets to cut loose.  In the final chapters, we also get a few details that make the religious struggle not quite as simplistic as “sky father religion bad, earth mother religion good,” but it’s a very small caveat that is likely to be more important in later books.

While it’s an okay read, I would need to see some strong improvement in the next volume before recommending the series.

Book Review: Some Kind of Peace

Book Review: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe & Asa Traff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Greve & Asa Traff

 

Siri Bergman is a Stockholm psychologist who is suffering from the loss of her husband, their unborn child and a crippling fear of darkness.  So it’s perhaps understandable that she wonders if she’s going round the bend when it appears she’s being stalked.  Then one of her patients turns up dead in her backyard, an apparent suicide.  It quickly becomes apparent that her stalker is very real–and very deadly.

Some Kind of Peace is another in the recent fad of imported Scandinavian thrillers.  This one is much more on the psychological thriller side than a mystery, which makes the choice of protagonist appropriate.  The day to day business side of psychology is written plausibly; not surprising given one of the sister authors is herself a psychologist.

The authors give a game try at making the thriller cliche of the distressed woman who does everything possible to make her situation worse from a safety standpoint and doesn’t spot important clues plausible.  The stalker isn’t a diabolical mastermind (in scenes told from their point of view, the stalker frequently makes mistakes) but Siri is just that messed up.  Still, it gets a bit over the top and if this were a movie, the audience would be shouting at the screen.

A bit I liked was that the timeframe of the story moves from a seemingly idyllic summer through the chilling fall and climaxes in darkest winter as Siri becomes more aware of the danger she’s in.

Trigger warnings: rape, abuse and abortion are discussed.

If you don’t mind that the story would have been half as long if the protagonist wasn’t so self-sabotaging, Some Kind of Peace is a good example of the thriller genre.

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This review will contain heavy spoilers.

Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

This is the third in a trilogy about Abby Thomas, a denominational college student on a summer service project to be a tutor to economically disadvantaged eleven-year-old Merri.  They discover that Beautiful House, a program on Merri’s computer, allows them to view (and experience!) past events in old buildings.  They soon draw in a young man named John Roberts, who starts a romantic relationship with Abby while helping them explore the history of Merri’s house, once a station on the Underground Railroad.

In this volume, Abby’s revealing of this information to her college roommate backfires when said roommate, Kate Greenfield, shows up with her fiance Ryan Turner in tow.  It seems Kate has run into a brick wall in her family research.  An ancestor named Ned Greenfield was born at Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois–but that’s all she can find on him or his parentage.  She asks Abby to help her using the Beautiful House program.

Equality, once a thriving salt mining town, seems friendly enough at first.  But the townspeople become considerably less welcoming once the subject of Hickory Hill comes up.  Abby and her friends soon discover some painful truths about the past.  But God is in the business of redemption, and makes all things new.

This book is aimed at the Christian young adult market, so there is quite a bit of God-talk.  An exact age range is a little harder to pin down.  The topics of rape, torture and the cost of human lives of slavery may be a bit heavy for younger teens, while the sexual prudishness of the protagonists will probably have older teens, particularly ones not raised in more conservative Christian communities, rolling their eyes.  Conservative Christian parents, on the other hand, are likely to approve of Abby and John’s chaste relationship.

There is a brief cameo by real-life evangelist D.L. Moody, the author of The Overcoming Life which I review here: http://www.skjam.com/2014/01/26/book-review-the-overcoming-life/ .

The book has some serious flaws, which I will talk about in the spoilers section below.  I can only recommend it as an introduction to the history of slavery in Illinois–there’s a list of  further reading books in the back that are more to the point on the subject.

SPOILERS

The biggest problem I have with this book is the villain of the modern section, Ryan.  Abby takes an immediate dislike to him on first meeting and it’s easy to see why.  The man is a horrible excuse for a human being, consistently putting his worst foot forward.  He has zero appealing personality traits.  Which would be okay if this were a different kind of story, one where the villain is mostly offstage so that the stalwart heroes only see him when he’s opposing them.

But instead he’s a tag-along for the group, in most scenes, repeatedly failing to show any redeeming characterization.  By the time of his “sudden but inevitable betrayal” Kate looks less like an impulsive young woman in love, and more like someone who’s really, really stupid and needs it spelled out to her in large letters that Ryan is bad news.  Tellingly, the one time Kate mentions what, specifically, she likes about Ryan, we aren’t allowed to hear it.

Ryan would have been a much better character if he were allowed to show positive character traits, reasons why Kate might have chosen to be his fiancee or special skills that made him valuable to the group.  Even having him make valid criticisms of the protagonists’ actions might have helped.  In this way, his final betrayal would have seemed less inevitable and more of a heartbreaking experience.

Looking at it another way, some in-story evidence suggests that Ryan may be either brain-damaged or not actually from Earth’s culture.  (Seriously, a college student who is unfamiliar with libraries?)  If this is the case, he’s less villainous than pitiable.   And his reasoning for having sex with Kate shows the perils of abstinence-only sex ed and purity culture–a more streetwise woman than Kate would have noticed how bogus the logic was.

A more excusable flaw is that the protagonists don’t really follow logic chains.  They know from repeated experience that Beautiful Home only works when it (or possibly God) wants to, and only shows them what it (or God) thinks they need to see.  Yet they constantly worry about the program being abused or falling into the wrong hands.  If God is showing Ryan women in their pajamas, then there is obviously some reason why God wants Ryan to see women in their pajamas, and you shouldn’t fault Ryan for that.

But hey, people are illogical like that in real life.

I’m also a little skeptical about exploring the issue of slavery and its ill effects from the point of view of privileged white people (Merri considerably less privileged, of course.)  It worries me that the protagonists are surprised by an integrated church in the 21st Century, and that John has never seen a church that allows black people and white people to worship together before.

I see this book was self-published–the author may need a stricter editor to work out some of these problems with.

Book Review: There Are Doors

Book Review: There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe

There Are Doors by Gene WolfeMr. Green has hooked up with Lara, a woman he knows almost nothing about.  After a week, she disappears, leaving only a note explaining that “there are doors” and that he must not go through them.  Mr. Green promptly manages to stumble through such a door and finds himself in what appears to be an alternate Earth.  An Earth where Lara is a goddess, and men die if they have sex.

Mr. Green is an unreliable viewpoint character–even if he isn’t delusional or suffering from hallucinations, there’s plenty of evidence that he’s mentally ill.  It takes him a frustratingly long time to realize he isn’t on his Earth because he honestly can’t trust his own memories as to what is real.  The reader is not helped in determining how much is real and how much is madness by the fact that several characters are transparently based on the classic Joe Palooka comic strip.  (Readers born after 1980 or so might not have this problem.)

Such plot as there is is doled out sparingly, with long sections of “nothing happening” as Mr. Green gets his bearings or goes through the motions of his workaday life in what passes for the real world.  While the book comes down pretty solidly on the side of science fiction by the end, it can also be argued that Mr. Green has just had a final psychotic break from reality.

It’s an interesting change from the sort of science fiction I normally read, but I would only recommend it to readers with patience and a willingness to guess at what isn’t said.

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