Book Review: They Talked to a Stranger

Book Review: They Talked to a Stranger by Len O’Connor

Not actually a picture from the book.

This book is centered around ten interviews with juvenile delinquents by then-radio reporter Len O’Connor in 1950s Chicago.  Each of the boys is identified with a nickname, some their actual nickname, others chosen to protect their identities.    They’re asked how they got into a life of crime, a bit about their home situations, what kind of reformatory or jail experience they’ve had, and so forth.

“Moustache”, for example, is a cop killer.  It’s more bad luck and bad choices than something he planned to do, but a cop killer none the less.  “The Loner” is an Israeli citizen, “Joy Ride” just likes stealing cars for the thrill (and his capture on a petty theft charge keeps him from being indicted for murder with the rest of his gang) and “One-Arm” is going to find it hard to continue his burglary career after his laundry machine accident.

It’s pretty strong stuff, and would have been even stronger when it was published back in the 1950s.  Most of the boys are clearly doomed to continue being criminals in adulthood; even the Army won’t take them.  The one ray of hope is “Boot Straps”, an uneducated black man who one day decided that stealing was getting him nowhere and quit cold turkey, turning his life around despite every hardship.

There is discussion of racism as one of the contributing factors of juvenile delinquency.  Several of the boys talk about rape, but none of them admit to it.  (There’s a fair amount of casual sexism both from the delinquents and from Mr. O’Connor.)  Homosexuals are seen as disturbed, and the concluding chapter makes a disconnected suggestion that homosexuals = sexual deviants = child killers.

The concluding chapter has other thoughts on the problem of juvenile delinquency in Chicago.  Suggested fixes include strong positive relationships between fathers and sons, free athletic programs to keep active young men busy, and better enforcement of curfew laws.

This is an interesting look at crime by minors in a bygone decade; it is disheartening to see how little has changed in some respects.  I got my copy from a library discard sale, and reprints appear to be very rare.

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.

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1 by Takehiko Inoue

Vagabond Vol. 1 by Takahiko Inoue

Miyamoto Musashi, author of A Book of Five Rings, was one of the greatest swordsmen of his time (the 1600s) and something of a warrior-philosopher.  He’s become a legendary figure, and there have been many fictional accounts of his life in Japanese media.  The most influential of these is Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, a novel that created many of the “beats” that subsequent tellings of the story often use.

Vagabond is a manga by Takehiko Inoue, better known for his pioneering basketball manga Slam Dunk.  This Vizbig edition collects three volumes of the series into one thick tome.  There’s little of the philosopher part of Musashi’s personality in this first book.  Still going by his birth name, Shinmen Takezo, we first meet our protagonist having barely survived the battle of Sekigahara, a conflict in which he notably failed to bring glory to his name.

With fellow survivor and childhood friend Matahachi, he decides to become “invincible under the sun,” the best swordsman in all of Japan.  Matahachi, sadly, has a flaw in his character that causes them to part paths and only Takezo returns to their home village of Miyamoto.  As far as most of the villagers are concerned, the wrong soldier came home from the war and Takezo is soon a fugitive again.

An encounter with a particularly hard talking monk helps the young swordsman find his way again.  Although the village has rejected him, he takes the village with him in his new name of Miyamoto Musashi.  He moves to Kyoto, where he challenges the Yoshioka school of swordsmanship and begins a rivalry with the Yoshioka brothers.  Matahachi is also in Kyoto, but has fallen on hard times.

The artwork and action sequences are excellent with reasonably distinctive faces allowing the large cast to remain distinguishable.  There are several color pages, which is a nice treat.

The three-in-one format really helps here, because at this early point in the story, Musashi is not a very likable character.  To be honest, he’s an asshole and it’s no wonder the villagers don’t welcome him home.  While we do see quite a bit of character development for Musashi, he’s still very much an asshole by the end of the volume, just one on the path that will lead to his enlightenment.

Matahachi, by contrast, starts more likable but makes bad choices and doesn’t learn from his mistakes.

There’s quite a bit of gory violence, and some sex scenes.   There’s a scene that would be rape by deception, except that the woman is clearly shown to have figured out what was happening before the act.  It should be okay for older teens and up

I recommend this series to fans of samurai drama who have the patience needed to get through the many volumes it will take to get to “the good stuff.”  For those with less patience, I recommend the movie trilogy based on the same material that came out a few decades ago.

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.

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl – All This Time

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl – All This Time by Brian Bastian & Bob Lipski

girl

Uptown Girl was a Minneapolis-produced minicomic first published in 2003 and running for 75 monthly issues.  This is a “best hits” collection with the creators’ favorite single issue stories.

Uptown Girl is a reporter for a Minneapolis newspaper who has wacky adventures with her friends, artist Ruby Tuesday and laid-back office worker/slacker Rocketman.  (There are a lot of music reference names in the series.)  In the framing story, Rocketman is moving, and ropes his buddies into helping him pack.  The various items they find cause flashbacks to earlier stories.

The first and final stories of the series are included, and it’s easy to see how much the art improved while still remaining simple.  (Uptown Girl’s head is a circle!)  There are werewolves from London, the first appearance of Sulky Girl, and my personal favorite, the introduction of Ana Ng, a photographer from Hibbing.  The collection leans more to the slice of life stories, rather than some of the more actiony plots.

Admittedly, this book is mostly of local interest, but some of the stories are funny and touching even without getting the Minneapolis jokes.  I’d recommend this volume to any fan of small-press comics.

 

Giveaway: Some Kind of Peace

Giveaway: Some Kind of Peace.  This Giveaway is closed.

Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Greve & Asa Traff

In the interests of doing new things, I’m trying a book giveaway.  The book in question is “Some Kind of Peace” by Camilla Grebe & Asa Traff, which I reviewed earlier this month.  Please be aware that this is a previously read copy, the same one I received from Simon & Schuster.

Rules

1.  The contest begins today, May 19, 2013 and runs to May 31, 2013.

2.  One entry per person, entries take the form of a comment to this entry on the subject of “Why I like Scandinavian thrillers” or “Why I want to read a Scandinavian thriller.”

3.  The winner will be determined by me, SKJAM! based on perceived quality of essay.  If I can;’t make up my mind between the best entries, I will use a random number generator.

4.  US addresses only, sorry international people.  Your prize will be shipped by USPS.

Enjoy the contest, and feel free to recommend it to your friends who like Scandinavian thrillers!

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.

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