Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Robin Blake

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Reading Copy, and there may be minor changes in the final product.

Dark Waters by Robin Blake

It is the Year of Our Lord 1741 in the small but bustling English town of Preston.  Attorney and coroner Titus Cragg is shocked but not surprised to find his drunkard uncle-in-law has fallen into the river and drowned.  The coroner’s jury rules it an accidental death, and that seems to be an end of it.

But then a man falls dead under suspicious circumstances just before a hotly contested election is scheduled, and it just so happens that he shares strong political beliefs with the first to die.  Is there a political conspiracy afoot?  Mr. Cragg must unravel the riddle with the help of the young and scientifically inclined Dr. Luke Fidelis before there’s no more room to store the bodies.

This is the second historical mystery featuring the team of Cragg & Fidelis; I have not read the first.    There are author’s notes at the end concerning the politics and monetary system of the time, which enhance the value of the book. The characters are likable, and the plot moves well.

Trigger Warning:  period slut-shaming.

This is good of its kind, and I recommend it to historical mystery fans.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no connection beyond the titles.

Book Review: The Jewels of Aptor

Book Review: The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delaney

The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delaney

This is the first novel by Samuel R. Delaney, published in 1967.  He was one of the first successful African-American science fiction authors, as well as one of the first openly gay SF writers, and certainly the most successful person so far to be both.  He’s associated with the New Wave movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, although this particular novel is closer to the old model of SF.

Geo, a poet, his sailor friend Urson, and a Strange One thief nicknamed Snake are recruited by the White Goddess Argo to travel to the semi-mythical island of Aptor and steal a jewel from the Dark God Hama.  Along the way they are joined by another sailor, the “Negro” Iimmi who has been to Aptor before.  Soon they are dealing with monsters, cults and ruined cities.  And of course, the quartet has not been told the entire truth about just why Argo wants those jewels.

While the setting looks at first glance like fantasy, it is indeed science fiction, as is made clear by a ruined city with a cracked nuclear reactor in it.  Some things don’t quite make sense in the history timeline, and that’s a plot point.

Some points in the novel are suggestive if one knows the author’s history; “Black Dude Dies First” is inverted, with the first person on the voyage to die being a pale-skinned man named “Whitey.”  Iimmi turns out to be well-educated for a sailor, being on sabbatical from his college studies.  And there’s a distinct lack of the kind of perfunctory hetero romance subplot that often got shoved into science fiction stories of the period.

Oh, there’s a pretty damsel, but by the time our heroes finally meet her, she’s in the middle of her own escape, not very much in distress at all.  Much more time is spent on the men’s strong friendships.  Still, most of the time it’s a fairly conventional fantastic adventure story.  (You can even see traces of The Lord of the Rings.)

A confusing prologue is referred back to at the end, with a bit of the changes in thinking caused by paradigm shifts that would become a major theme of Mr. Delany’s work.

Like many first novels, it’s not quite up to the standards of the author’s later work, but it’s good of its kind and well worth looking up at your library.

Book Review: Murder for Revenge

Book Review: Murder for Revenge edited by Otto Penzler

Revenge

This is another themed anthology, this time around the concept of revenge.  That’s a pretty loose theme as these things go.  It’s got a big-name author list going for it though.

“Like a Bone in the Throat” by Lawrence Block starts the book off strong with a tale of a man condemned for a crime he certainly did commit.  The death penalty isn’t enough for some people, but who gets revenge in the end?

“Power Play” by Mary Higgins Clark is most notable for starring Mr. and Mrs. Harry Potter (this book came out in 1998, after Philosopher’s Stone came out, but well before the J.K. Rowling series became huge.)  An ex-President visits an old friend in the Middle East, and is kidnapped by what appear to be terrorists.

“Fatherhood” by Thomas H. Cook retells a familiar story from a different perspective, one drenched in revenge.

“West End” by Vicki Hendricks is about a sailing trip with a control freak.  That won’t end well.

“Caveat Emptor” by Joan Hess features a woman in distress who is taken further advantage of by a real estate agent, the story being told by a neighbor.

“Eradicum Homo Horribilus” by Judith Kelman is a bit over the top.  It has a bully of many years trying to trick his favorite victim into coming around for one last humiliation.  Too bad for him she’s taken up botany.

“Dead Cat Bounce” by Eric Lustbader is almost nothing like his usual novels.  On the eve of a wealthy couple’s daughter’s wedding, it’s discovered that the groom has a few dark secrets.  And so do everyone else.

“Angie’s Delight” ” by Philip Margolin has a man facing the death penalty unless he gets a good lawyer, one who can prove he didn’t commit murder.  Luckily, this public defender is a tiger.  Or is it luck?

‘Front Man” by David Morrell is about growing old in the world of Hollywood writing.  Mort Davidson is still a heck of a writer, but the new blood in the front office doesn’t think he can connect with the money-heavy young audience.

“Murder-Two” by Joyce Carol Oates features a relationship between a lawyer and her client that might be the worst thing that fate could have arranged for either.

“The Enemy” by Shel Silverstein is a poem of revenge long-plotted and well-planned.  Revenge served very cold indeed.

The volume finishes with “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” by Peter Straub.   A financial planner hires hitmen, or thinks he does–their specialty may be a little different.  It’s the longest story in the book, and is the poorer for it–Mr. Straub becomes self-indulgent and goes on and on.  Chilling ending, though.

Overall, a strong collection, worth picking up if you like at least two of the authors (except Peter Straub as this is not his best work.  For a better piece by him, see my review of “Koko” http://www.skjam.com/2013/06/05/book-review-koko/ .)

 

Book Review: The Spider #7

Book Review: The Spider #7 by Grant Stockbridge

The Spider #7--decpetive cover

When the Shadow kickstarted the pulp hero magazines in the 1930s, it was no surprise that a similar character, the Spider, was featured at a rival publishing house.  Written under house name Grant Stockbridge (usually Norvell Page), the Spider was wealthy socialite and amateur criminologist Richard Wentworth.  A master of disguise, the Spider was heavily armed and had no compunction about killing criminals outright and branding them with his mark.

The Spider pulps were violent even by the standard of the times; the villains often introduced themselves with a mass murder or mutilation before getting down to their actual business.  The stories were fast-paced, with the Spider almost never getting to take full advantage of his arsenal and allies as events quickly stripped him down to his wits, courage and unbelievable ability to function despite crippling wounds.

This volume is from the 1993 reprint series, which was a “best hits” collection.  Despite the cover, “The Grey Horde Creeps” is not included.  Instead we have two other stories.

“King of the Red Killers” pits the Spider against El Gaucho, a bandit who has gathered a small army of criminals and is wiping out entire communities on the Great Plains.  But first, Dick has to prevent the criminal syndicates of the East Coast from making common cause with El Gaucho.  El Gaucho himself is something of a disappointment, as he is not in fact a gaucho.  He is not even Argentinian!  Once the Spider learns the truth about El Gaucho, he notes that the criminal’s master plan won’t work, but will cause so much suffering in the process that El Gaucho still needs to be taken down.

More interesting is Yvonne Musette, a gun moll for one of the New York gangsters.  She’s one of the most dangerous foes Dick has ever faced because she has some common sense.  She spots the Spider lurking near the gangster rendezvous and realizes that no amount of security can keep him out, isn’t fooled by the Spider’s misdirection, and advocates just killing him once captured, rather than putting the hero in a death trap.

It’s a good thing for the Spider that the gangsters don’t take Yvonne seriously because she’s a woman.

This story climaxes when the Spider attempts to kill someone with his own severed head.  Can’t get much more over the top violent than that!

“The Green Globes of Death” is the second Spider story featuring his foe, the Fly.  When last seen, Dick had stabbed the Fly all the way through the chest with a sword, and the villain then fell from the top of a tall bridge into the river.  Sure, the body was never recovered, but no one in the Spider series has actual super-powers, so the Fly is almost certainly dead.  Thus it’s a bit of a surprise when the Fly turns up hale and hearty, and just as lethal as ever.

The Spider suspects an impostor, perhaps the Fly’s nearly identical brother?  But the evidence is against it–this Fly seems to know things only the real Fly did, and has an identical fencing style.  The eponymous globes turn out to be made of glass, with a green poisonous gas inside.

The true identity of the Fly turns out to have a pretty neat twist, and this is one of the few Spider stories where Dick’s love interest Nita van Sloan gets to take out the villain at the end.  (Nita was pretty competent by pulp standards, but often got sidelined by the climax of Spider stories.)

These are pulse-pounding pulp action stories, and you can probably find the Nineties reprints affordable at used book stores.

For a different character also named “the Spider” see this review: http://www.skjam.com/2013/07/12/comic-book-review-king-of-crooks/

Book Review: Who Died in Here?

Book Review: Who Died in Here? edited by Pat Dennis

died

Themed short story anthologies are a perennial favorite for genre fiction.  “Best of” collections tend to feature heavy overlap with other best ofs, while single-author collections have to rely on the reader being willing to pick up a particular author’s work.  Themes allow the authors to riff on a central concept, and have readers pick it up because they find the theme interesting or amusing.

In this case, it’s tales of murder and death somehow connected to bathrooms.  As you might expect, there’s a certain amount of toilet humor, but other stories are more interested in the tub or shower.

As with most anthologies, the quality is uneven.  Standouts include: “Hard Working Red”, about a plumber who takes one too many barbs from an electrician; “Nobody Cares”, which is more of a horror story with a victim who honestly gets what’s coming to him; “Caught With His Pants Down”, which has a twist on the jealous stalker story;”Graphic Design”, in which a man reads tomorrow’s news; and “Problem Plumbing”, about a mother who is both pleased and horrified when her son’s potty training finally takes hold.

They’re all quite short stories, suitable for bathroom reading or any other place you have only a few minutes to spare.  Recommended as a gift for mystery fans with a sense of humor.

 

Book Review: The Guns of Navarone

Book Review: The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean

Navarone

There are more than a thousand British soldiers trapped on a small island off the Turkish coast, and the Germans are sending a huge force to smash them.  The British Navy wants to pull them off, but the only route that can be taken goes right past–the guns of Navarone.  Unfortunately neither sea nor air attacks will work on the Navarone fortress due to its unique position, and a mass amphibious assault would take too long.  But a small team of specialists might be able to scale the unclimbable cliffs, get past the elite Alpenkorps troops, infiltrate the impenetrable fortress and blow up the invincible guns.  Maybe.

Perhaps the best known of action writer Alistair MacLean’s books (he also did Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra), it was made into an Oscar-winning (and notoriously loud) movie in 1961.  I was made to feel quite old when the barista at the local coffee shop had never heard of either book or movie.

This is a very manly adventure book, full of stiff upper lips and overcoming fear and wishing sadly that one didn’t have to kill quite so many of the enemy.  There’s really only one evil German, and even his fellow soldiers don’t approve of his actions.

The plan goes wrong almost immediately, and disaster after disaster strikes the team.  Mr. MacLean was really good at amplifying the suspense and making the heroes the underdogs of the story.  TRIGGER WARNING:  The evil German indulges in some torture briefly

There are some large character changes from the book to the movie (the movie actually has women in it) so even if you’ve seen the film, the book should still have some surprises.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks by Robert Lory

This is another Ace Double, two small books combined into one upside-down from each other so they make a fair-sized paperback.  In this case, a short novel and several short stories by former ad executive Robert Lory.

Lamp1Masters of the Lamp is a spy novel set in the far future.  Two agents of the Federation’s Intelligence Arm have gone missing, and the Head, an organic supercomputer, suspects a connection.  It’s up to Shamryke Odell (named after a long-extinct plant), top agent, to discover what’s up.  Though he prefers to work alone, Sham is teamed up with Aleya Nine of the Merchants’ Guild.  He’s reminded that she’s an expendable partner.

Soon enough, the agents find themselves bound to Marquette, the planet of religious fanatics.  And not just one denomination, but all sorts of religious fanatics.  Disguised as pilgrims, Sham and Aleya must discover what’s really going on behind the scenes, who’s responsible and what their ultimate goal is.

The story is James Bond-ish, with gadgets, double agents and people being killed just as they’re about to spill the secret.  Sham is alleged to be a ladies’ man, but doesn’t get any until after the story ends.  Religious belief is generally treated as a bit silly, but at least one bit of dogma turns out to be a life-saver for the cult that practices it.

Lamp2

A Harvest of Hoodwinks is an anthology of short tales linked by the theme of deception.  The most striking of the stories is “Because of Purple Elephants,” in which two small children discover an alien spaceship, with telepathic invaders aboard.  The older of the boys must make a decision that could save Earth or mean death.  “The Star Party” is interesting for following the notion of a genuine astrologer to a painful conclusion.  “Just a God” deals with an abrupt change in theology.  And “Debut” is a very short piece that’s almost all twist.

“Snowbird and the Seven Warfs,” about a Cheyenne man mistakenly drafted into an alien game show, demonstrates one of the problems that crops up in Ace Doubles.  They were still using rather old-fashioned standards when it came to talking about sex, even in 1970.  Thus the last few paragraphs take a very roundabout approach to implying that the man has had his penis enlarged.

This isn’t the best Ace Double I’ve read, but it was bargain priced, and “Debut” really is a gem.

Book Review: The 47 Ronin

The 47 Ronin by A.B. Mitford

47

This is an abridged and dolled-up reprint of A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan with lots of color illustrations.  Tales was originally published in 1871, as Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, a member of the British legation in Tokyo, witnessed the rapid modernization of Japan.  He decided to set down some traditional stories before they were completely altered by new attitudes and customs.

The centerpiece, of course, is the mostly-true story of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death against the enemy who caused his downfall.  The ronin are culture heroes of Japan, who have been imbued with the virtues of honor and self-sacrifice by the frequent retelling of their story.  As such, the behavior shown in this version may seem exotic and a little puzzling to modern Western readers.  They’re all so polite!

(There is an upcoming movie which casts Keanu Reeves as a forty-eighth ronin character written specifically to shoehorn a partially-white person into the story so that Americans will watch it.  I recommend the Stan Sakai comic book adaptation instead.  Read the review for that here.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/)

There are several other stories of revenge and bloodshed, but also some light-hearted moments, and tales of the supernatural, including both evil and good cats.  In between stories, Mr. Mitford has scattered information on the samurai swords, sumo wrestling and other interesting topics.  The book finishes with scholarly appendixes on ritual suicide and funerary rites as they were then practiced in Japan.

The writing style may seem overly formal to modern readers, but is free of the more purple filigree often associated with Victorian literature.  I strongly recommend this book to students of Japanese culture, and to manga/anime fans interested in the roots of some stories they’ve only seen modern adaptations of.  (The original text is in the public domain, so should be easy to find in less expensive formats.)

Book Review: Deadly Defiance

Book Review: Deadly Defiance by William Manchee

Deadly

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

This is the tenth volume in a series about Stan Turner, a Dallas based attorney for the firm of Turner and Waters.  It’s 1995, and the law firm is going through a bit of a financial crunch.  Their current clients don’t seem to be likely to help with that much.  First, there’s Maureen Thompson, whose bankruptcy filing is put on hold when her estranged husband turns up dead from multiple icepick wounds.   Which might be defensible–except that her first husband died of the same thing!

Then there’s the Alvarez family, impoverished immigrants, who are seeking a wrongful death settlement from a notorious sweatshop owner with ties to organized crime.  There’s also the search for a missing heir, but the family involved in that doesn’t want to pay to have him found–though they might pay Stan to drop the search.

This book is more of a procedural than a fair play mystery, full of filings and legal maneuverings.   And our protagonists aren’t exactly squeaky clean; Stan’s partner Paula Waters in particular does some questionable things to ensure she’ll get paid, which could easily come back to bite her later.  There are some exciting scenes involving a Mexican drug cartel.

I think the book could have used another editorial pass.  The first chapter starts with a paragraph that makes it look as though Stan’s wife Rebekah will be doing something in the chapter, but switches gears to Stan’s day at the office.  References to previous volumes are shoehorned in (I’d recommend just going with footnotes) Also, there are a couple of apostrophe use typos.    The pacing is better in the later chapters.

A decent read, but overall a little unsatisfying.

Book Review: The Boy Knight

Book Review: The Boy Knight by G. A. Henty

boy

G.A. Henty (1852-1902) was a writer of children’s historical fiction, who began his career as an author after a friend heard him telling bedtime stories to his kids.  Like many Victorian authors, he’s out of favor these days, but my parents found this book at an estate sale.

Cuthbert is fifteen when the story begins, a lad of mixed Norman and Saxon blood during the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.)  This gives him ties to both his late father’s cousin, the Earl of Evesham, and his mother’s relative, the landless freeman Cnut.  Learning that the Earl plans to rid the forest of the landless men, Cuthbert warns them in time, then happily finds a way for the woodsmen to help save the Earl’s daughter from his real enemy, the Baron of Wortham.

Recognized for his bravery and cleverness, Cuthbert is made the Earl’s squire when a Crusade is called.  The noble (in the best sense of the word) lad is quickly noted by King Richard, and soon becomes a knight.  Alas, after many adventures the old Earl dies without a male heir, but before he goes convinces Richard to appoint Cuthbert the new Earl of Evesham and the betrothed of the old Earl’s lovely daughter.

More adventures later, Cuthbert arrives back in England incognito, to discover that wicked Prince John has appointed one of his unpleasant cronies as Earl and betrothed.  Now Cuthbert must defeat the false Earl, save the maiden and find the missing true king.  With a little help from Robin Hood and Blondel, he accomplishes all this.

The prose is rather stiff with an antiquated vocabulary–today’s children might get the impression that they’re reading a book for grown-ups.  Those looking for deep characterization are likely to be disappointed.  Cuthbert begins the story honest, kind, brave and clever, and remains so throughout.  His primary character flaw is that he is, perhaps, just a little too boyishly fond of adventure.  When not engaged in battle, even the lowliest of persons is formal of speech.

This is not to say the work is free of moral ambiguity.  It’s admitted that the Crusades had generally bad results in spite of their lofty purposes, the Muslims have valid reasons for opposing the Crusaders, and King Richard’s selfish actions are shown to have negative consequences even while he remains the great hero of the story.  Parents reading this with their children may wish to discuss how easily religion can be used as an excuse for war, and the real history of the Crusades.

This book can also be found under the title “Winning His Spurs.”  It’s a good example of children’s literature of a bygone age, and with some caveats is suitable as a bedtime story even today.  As it’s in the public domain, there have been some inexpensive reprints in recent years.

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