Book Review: Next Year in Havana

Book Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Reading Copy from a Read It Forward giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product, due out 2/6/18, may have minor changes.

Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of one of the richest families in Havana, constrained by family tradition and the patriarchal society.  Her father supports president Fulgencio Batista in order to protect their sugar industry interests, but Elisa is becoming increasingly aware of the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the government.  Still, are the 26th of July movement and the other revolutionaries truly the way forward?

In 2017, Marisol Ferrera takes advantage of the partial thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States following the death of Fidel Castro and her job as a lifestyles journalist to travel to the land her family has long been exiles of.  Though she knows what Cuba was from the stories of her grandmother and other relatives, Marisol has little idea of what that country is like now.  More, she’s about to discover a family secret hidden all these decades.

The author, Chanel Cleeton, is herself the descendant of Cuban exiles, which inspired this dual romance book with political thriller elements.

My mother has told me of meeting Cuban exiles back in the late 1950s who eagerly hoped for the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Batista so that they could go home and rebuild their country.  They hoped that Castro would keep his promises of reform and that Cuba would rise to be the prosperous, modern nation it had once been.  Mom lost touch, and has no idea what happened to them.

Elisa, nineteen, is whisked out of the house in secret by her more daring sister Beatriz to go to a party in a less prosperous part of the city.   While Beatriz meets with their disowned brother, Elisa meets an earnest lawyer, Pablo, who it turns out is an ally of Che Guevara.   They begin a forbidden courtship, kept apart by social status and the explosive political climate.

Marisol is twenty-six, and a bit more worldly wise than her grandmother had been.  Her shoes still cost more than the average Cuban makes in a year.  Elisa’s best friend Ana had been forced to stay in Cuba, and has managed to make a small living as a restaurant owner.  Ana’s grandson Luis is a history professor who also helps out at the restaurant, and becomes Elisa’s tour guide.  As Elisa learns more about her grandmother’s life before exile, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Luis.

The descriptions are lush, with many glowing descriptions of landscapes and food.

Elisa’s section of the book seems surer-footed, perhaps because the passage of time has made the political outcomes clearer and that allows the author to weave the events together more closely.  Marisol’s section seems designed to appeal to the viewpoint of Cuban expatriates and their loyalists, and I have to wonder how much it would ring true to Cubans who actually live in Cuba.  The political thriller elements seem more forced in that section.

Torture is mentioned, and the results are seen.

I think this book will go over well with people who are heavily into historical romance as a genre and appreciate political thriller elements sprinkled in.  It’s also nice to read a book with Cuba as a setting; I’ve only had a handful of those.  (Check my back reviews for Mingo Dabney.)

The edition coming out in 2018 appears to be designed to be a book club selection, as there are discussion questions in the back.  Also, the sequel starring Beatriz, Elisa’s sister, is already in the works and there is a chapter from that.  (And from that excerpt, it looks like more my thing.)

Manga Review: Black Blizzard

Manga Review: Black Blizzard by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The year is 1956.  Shinpei Konta, a card shark with five convictions (two for murder) and Susumu Yamaji, a pianist just convicted for murder, are handcuffed together on a train headed for prison.  The weather has turned to a blizzard, and a landslide across the tracks derails the train and allows the convicts to escape.  However, two men handcuffed together aren’t going to get very far before being spotted.  They don’t have any tools that can cut the chain…but they do have something that will cut off a human hand!

Black Blizzard

This was Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s first “novel-length” manga story.  There’s an interview with him to fill out the book, and he explains the commercial aspects of how the story came to be (color pages at the beginning to entice young readers to rent the manga from the store, for example) as well as the creative side.  While the cover calls this “legendary”, he notes that it only had moderate success at the time (but proved he was able to sell on his own, rather than just in anthologies.)

The story has noir-ish touches, and I could see it as an hour-long live action TV drama (half an hour with some cuts.)  Much of the story is Susumu flashing back to his romance with a circus singer, and a drunken brawl that led to the death of the ringmaster.   Susumu is not a hardened criminal, and wants to protect his hands.  Shinpei, on the other hand, has already spent a total of thirty years in jail, is far more ruthless, and needs both his hands as well.

The art is crude by modern standards, but effective, and conveys the heavy weather well.  The writing is likewise somewhat old-fashioned, going for suspense.  Content warning for off-screen domestic abuse.

Since this is complete in one volume, it’s a good choice for those who’d like to sample older manga or have a taste for crime fiction.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Strip for Murder

Book Review: Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins

Years ago, Sam Fizer hired young Hal Rapp as an art assistant on his comic strip Mug O’ Malley.  At first, they were good friends, but when the ambitious Rapp struck out on his own with his new strip Tall Paul, Fizer felt betrayed.  Especially as the characters around hillbilly Paul were very similar to ones created for Mug’s supporting cast.  The two men feuded for years; but things have become especially heated now that there’s a Tall Paul musical on Broadway and Sam Fizer’s ex-wife has a big part in it.

Strip for Murder

So when Sam Fizer is found dead at his drawing board, in a particularly fake-looking “suicide”, Hal Rapp is the number one suspect.  It’s up to Starr Syndicate’s in-house troubleshooter Jack Starr and his stepmother/boss Maggie Starr to figure out who really killed Fizer and why, if they want to hire Rapp away from his current distributor.

This is the second Starr Syndicate novel, set in the 1950s by author Max Allan Collins, who is familiar with the newspaper comics business from his time as the writer of Dick Tracy.   It’s a roman a clef (novel with a key) as Fizer and Rapp stand in for Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka and Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame.  Several other cartoonists also get the transparent name change treatment.  As the author mentions in the afterword, this is so he can switch things around and introduce entirely fictional elements.  (For example, Ham Fisher didn’t die the year the book has Sam Fizer doing it.)

For a huge old-time comics fan like myself, there are lots of in-jokes and references to enjoy; but there’s also a twisty mystery with multiple suspects and several red herrings for those who just want to read a book.   The experience is enhanced by the drawings of Terry Beatty, who gets to stretch a bit as he imitates the art styles of the cartoonists in question.

Jack Starr is a likable narrator, closer to soft-boiled than hard as he’s had to give up alcohol and tobacco, and drinks Coca-Cola like they’re paying him to endorse it.  (He claims they aren’t, but he’s willing to make a deal.)  He does the legwork, but it’s actually former stripper Maggie who is the brains of the outfit.

There are some outdated period attitudes, deliberately done, but still a teensy irritating.

Overall, good writing, a sense of fun, and you may learn a thing or two about the comics business.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon by Vargo Statten

When marine paleontologist Dr. Carl Maia’s expedition into the Amazon rain forest discovers a unique fossil, which looks like a webbed hand, he asks for a full expedition to the area by his colleagues at the Morajo Institute of Marine Biology.  He is joined by the institute’s money-conscious  director, Mark Williams, ichthyologist David Reed, research biologist Kay Lawrence, and Dr. Thompson, whose specialty is not obvious.  They engage Captain Lucas and his river boat, the Rita, complete with crew.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Back at Dr. Maia’s base camp, the expedition is shocked to discover that the guards have been killed, apparently savaged by a wild beast.  There’s no sign of the animal itself, and it does not seem to be around while they look for fossils.  Coming up empty, they decide to head down the nearby branch river, which the natives claim runs into a place called “the Black Lagoon.”  It’s supposedly a place from which no man returns.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of truth to that story.  For within the Black Lagoon lurks a creature, a surviving member of a species from the Devonian era.  And it’s not fond of visitors….

The 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal Pictures, spawning two sequels, the last of their monster franchises.  For the movie’s international debut in Britain, they hired Vargo Statten (pen name of John Russell Fearn) to write a novelization.   Unlike other novelizations, which generally have to work off an early script, Mr. Fearn was able to use the finished product, making the book very faithful to the film.  The book was considered a superior example of the type, and has become a collector’s item, running in the thousands of dollars.

This is the first American reprint, and Dreamhaven Books has done it up well, with a new cover, an introduction explaining the background of the film and book, many movie stills and production photos, and a biography of Vargo Statten.

The actual reprint part is relatively slim, as was the custom for paperbacks of the time, and sticks very closely to the movie with additional dialogue.  The plot works well enough, but you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Many of the scenes are cinematic in nature, and at times the reader will need to pay close attention to follow the action.

The book shares with the movie a heavy dose of Fifties sexism and gender politics.   It’s suggested to Kay, for example, that “science” and “feminine” are contradictory personality traits.  She’s constantly being told that things are too dangerous/tough/frightening for a woman.  And Kay seems to enjoy two handsome fellows quarreling over her.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williams and Dr. Reed suffer from toxic masculinity; fighting over Kay’s affections, competing over what to do about the creature, and rushing to the attack when running away would have been wiser.  Dr. Williams uses his position as Kay’s boss to pressure her into not completely rejecting his romantic advances.

And then there’s the poor lonely Gill Man, who wants Kay for…something, it’s not quite sure what.  If only these other dratted humans would go away!  Yes, the Gill Man is a monster that kills several people due to them invading its territory.  But we can sympathize with its wish not to be captured for Science! and put on display or vivisected.

This is a fun read with good extras, and I highly recommend it.  It’s a must-have for the Gill Man lover in your life.  Please consider buying it directly from Dreamhaven Books to support small press.

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road

Book Review: The 66 Kid: Raised on the Mother Road by Bob Boze Bell

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

The 66 Kid

Bob Boze Bell has been a rock musician, cartoonist, radio host, magazine publisher and other interesting jobs.  And he spent most of his youth in Kingman, Arizona, where his father had gas stations on Route 66.  This is his memoir of those years.

It’s a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photographs and Mr. Bell’s paintings.  Fortunately, he has many family pictures and old clippings to illustrate his anecdotes and historical tidbits.  It’s a fascinating (if possibly biased) look at life in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s.  Mr. Bell is an accomplished writer, and his prose is excellent.

Note that this is not a comprehensive book about the highway itself; it primarily covers the Kingman area and how Route 66 affected Mr. Bell’s life.

At a suggested retail price of thirty dollars, this book is good value for money if you’re interested in Arizona or Bob Boze Bell.  Others might want to see if their library has it for borrowing, as it is a handsome volume.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to close without a reference to the famous song, so here it is:

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

TV Review: Sheriff of Cochise/United States Marshal | The Lone Wolf

TV Review: Sheriff of Cochise/United States Marshal | The Lone Wolf

Frank Morgan (John Bromfield) was the Sheriff of Cochise County in Arizona and then became a United States Marshal in a series that ran from 1956 to 1960.  While the show was Western-flavored, it was more police procedural than cowboy show.

Sheriff of Cochise

I watched four episodes, two from the first part and two from after the retool, on DVD.

  • “The Red-Headed Visitor”  An auto mechanic is missing, and turns up murdered.  Suspicion initially rests on his pharmacist brother in law, with whom he’d quarreled, but the sheriff suddenly realizes that a tourist at a local resort is a known criminal.   The audience knows this from the beginning, as we see the redhead buy blond hair dye, and the mechanic make a gesture that disparages the visitor’s masculinity.
  • “Bank Robbery”  Exactly what it sounds like.  Two clever robbers have hit several banks, but take a little too long to case their next job.  This makes the tellers suspicious, and the sheriff comes up with a trap.  Neither plan goes right, but this is a cop show.
  • “Rest In Peace”  A guard implicated in an armored car robbery is shot and left for dead.  Things get complicated at the hospital when two women show up, both claiming to be his wife.  (One of them is lying.)  In a desperate attempt to escape, the criminals kidnap a deputy marshal.
  • “The Diner”  Two escaped convicts try to track down a third member of their gang who they believe is holding out money on them.  It turns into a hostage situation which predictably doesn’t end well for them.  The diner of the title appears at the beginning; the cook is an ex-con the escapees pump for information.

It’s an average TV show of its period, most interesting for its time capsule qualities and the fact that it was largely shot in Bisbee, Arizona and locals can probably spot many of the buildings.

The Lone Wolf was Michael Lanyard, a jewel thief turned private detective.  He was created in 1914 by Louis Joseph Vance, starred in a number of books, and then over twenty movies and a radio show.

The Lone Wolf

What we’re concerned with here is the television show, with Louis Hayward as the title character, which ran 1954-1955 and also ran in syndication as Streets of Danger.  None of the episodes I saw mentioned the jewel thief past, although it was clear there was some shadiness.  This version carried a unique medallion that served as his calling card.  The DVD had five episodes.

  • “The Las Vegas Story”  The Lone Wolf is hired to find a man who’d been falsely accused of murder and convince him to come in for a trial.  It’s more complicated than that.  Highlights include DeForest Kelly as a murder victim, and a tense but overlong chase scene set inside Hoover Dam (I’m guessing they had to pay big bucks for the location shoot and decided to milk it.)
  • “The Beverly Hills Story”  Michael Lanyard is surprised to discover that he is now a married man, although he does have a gap in his memories of Reno.  Mrs. Lanyard certainly knows more about him than she should!  The real game is blackmail.
  • “The Oil Story”  The Lone Wolf is called to Oklahoma.  It seems a violent criminal has kidnapped his son from his ex-wife.  Lanyard goes undercover as a roughneck (badly, he doesn’t have the hands of an oil worker) and seeks out the rest of the story.  The father has a black servant who looks embarrassed to be in this role, like the actor was desperate for a paycheck and this was the best work he could find.
  • “The Karachi Story”  Most of the story takes place in India, as the leader of a religious group has asked Lanyard to protect his son.  Seems there are two factions in the sect, the one that builds hospitals and soup kitchens, and the one that wants to spend all the money improving the living standards of the priests.  All well and good, but there are also two Michael Lanyards!  Identity confusion abounds.  All the South Asian people are played by white Americans in brownface.
  • “The Stamp Story”  A valuable stamp has gone missing, believed stolen, and Lanyard is called in to find it for the mysterious collector “Deep River.”  Much fun is had with the antics of an eccentric stamp dealer and another stamp collector who’s blind.  The blind man’s daughter has a rare hairstyle, I don’t know the actual name, but it frosts the forelocks into curly horn shapes.

Mr. Hayward portrays the Lone Wolf as a bit cynical, willing to flirt with women but seldom going further, and a vicious in-fighter.  The series is old-fashioned, but has its charms.

TV Review: Miami Undercover | Richard Diamond, Private Eye

TV Review: Miami Undercover | Richard Diamond, Private Eye

Miami Undercover was a 1961 series shot in Miami Beach, with Lee Bowman as private investigator Jeff Thompson and Rocky Graziano as “Rocky.”  Mr. Thompson was employed by the hotel owners to perform undercover investigations to avoid alarming guests with the presence of an overt hotel detective.  Rocky, a former boxing champ, provided muscle.

Rocky undercover at Scottie's, a drive-in restaurant where the carhops wear plaid skirts.
Rocky undercover at Scottie’s, a drive-in restaurant where the carhops wear plaid skirts.

In the episode I saw on DVD, “The Thrush,”  a radio disk jockey (a very young Larry King!) refuses to take payola to promote a particular record.  He pays for this with his life.  Since the killers made the mistake of doing this live on the air,  the police have already figured out the Raven recording company is the probable culprit.  But when they approached the singer (“thrush”) on the record she clammed up.

Jeff goes undercover as a New York booking agent.   The crooked music producer is a relatively small-time gangster from the Midwest trying to move up in the world; he also owns a local nightclub where the thrush sings.  Jeff plays the gangster and his hoods against each other in order to free the singer from their clutches.

Jeff is urbane and has an excellent rapport with the police.  Rocky is played as kind of dim and gets ribbed a lot about his appearance, but his boxing fame comes in handy, as do his fists.  The show is very dated, and the Mill Creek transfer is poor.

Richard Diamond, Private Eye was a television version of the early 1950s radio show, the TV series running 1957-60.  Richard Diamond (David Janssen) is a light-hearted private detective (most people call him “Rick”, )   In later seasons, he had a leggy secretary named “Sam” , but the two episodes I watched were from the first season.

Richard Diamond, Private Eye

“Picture of Fear” has Mr. Diamond’s fishing vacation cut short when the woman he’s been pitching woo to takes a photograph of two men hunting who most assuredly did not want to be photographed.  Rick has to protect her from their repeated attempts to get the film, or failing that, kill her.  Rick is kind of annoyed when it turns out the woman took that picture deliberately; she’s a reporter.

“The Merry-Go-Round Case”  Mr. Diamond is hired by the sister of one of his old friends.  It seems this friend has become increasingly frustrated with hard work that leads nowhere, and became a criminal.  One that allegedly killed a gas station attendant during a robbery.  She wants Rick to track him down and clear the man if he can.  It takes a while for Rick to realize that the merry-go-round of the title is literal, and not the name of a bar or club.

Mr. Janssen is good (he went on to star in The Fugitive), but the writing is only so-so in these episodes.  These are perhaps not the best available examples to judge the series by.

 

TV Review: Public Defender

TV Review: Public Defender

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”  The office of the Public Defender is a special government department that  specializes in handling the cases of indigent defendants.  The first such office was opened in Los Angeles in about 1914.

Public Defender

This series, which aired in 1954-55, was intended to raise awareness of the work of public defenders, who at the time were relatively few in number and were primarily used for cases where the death penalty was possible.   The stories were purportedly based on actual cases, but several of the episodes just say that all the characters are fictional.  Reed Hadley played Public Defender Bart Matthews, who narrated each episode, but was not always the focus character.  Each episode ends with a tribute to a real life public defender

I watched four episodes on DVD.

  • “Badge of Honor”  We open at the funeral of a police officer. Mr. Matthews recalls the decedent, a rookie cop who makes a mistake during an arrest, then tries to cover it up with a falsified arrest report.  His conscience bothers him, and he confesses to Mr. Matthews, who must find a way to see justice is done, but not cost the policeman his job.  At the end, we find out that the cop died a hero years later, having served with honor since that one mistake.
  • “Let Justice Be Done”  The focus this time is on a deputy public defender who must defend a cop-killer.  But not just any cop-killer, but the one who killed his best friend.  In real life, the attorney would be allowed/expected to recuse himself due to this conflict of interest.  But for the sake of the story, Mr. Matthews deliberately assigns him the case as some sort of lesson in justice.
  • “Eight Out of One Hundred”  A young Polish immigrant is accused of stealing jewelry from her mother’s employer.  Mr. Matthews’ investigation is hindered by the police department being sore at him for giving a speech in which he pointed out that his office gets acquittals for about eight percent of their clients.  This case is one of those eight, as the employer was hitting on the woman, and she refused him.  He was also engaged in wage theft, supposedly paying the mother a living wage, but using various fees and charges to claw back 70% of it.  To add insult to injury, he’s also fond of misquoting the Bible.
  • “Behind Bars”  It’s discovered that a woman in prison is there under an assumed name, which she used to avoid bringing trouble to her ex-husband and their daughter.  A witness claimed she’d murdered her landlady in a fit of alcoholic rage.  When the defender tracks down the ex, he reveals that the woman was not a violent drunk, but an extremely timid one.  It’s soon discovered that there were other important details that hadn’t come out at the trial, such as that the landlady was already dying, and the witness had a grudge, as he’d tried to force himself on the defendant.

The writing is decent, but too earnest for modern tastes; the scripts do backflips to avoid criticizing the police or the justice system.  I enjoyed “Eight Out of One Hundred” the best.  Be aware that 1950s attitudes are rife in this show, from the frequent smoking to the expected gender roles.

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