Book Review: Green Kills

Book Review: Green Kills by Avi Domoshevizki

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Green Kills

Ronnie Saar knew venture capital was a cutthroat business when he agreed to become a partner in one of the top firms.  He just never expected that to be literal!  The Israeli businessman is put in charge of safely delivering a pharmaceutical startup through the final phases of its funding as their product undergoes drug trials.  His job becomes much harder when the president of the firm commits suicide (or does he?) and two patients dosed with the new drug die on surgical tables.

The company’s value to investors is plummeting, and Ronnie is getting pressure from all sides to make a quick sales deal.  His pride as a financial professional is on the line–and it’s distracting him from whatever is wrong with his fiancee Liah at a critical point in their relationship.  Ronnie should be able to trust his old friend Gadi, a security specialist, but Gadi’s been acting strangely too….

This is the first book in a planned series, and I believe the first published novel by this author.  Mr. Domoshevizki is according to his bio an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and both the financial workings and details of drug trials ring true.  There’s a couple of footnotes to explain details.

There are,  however, a number of problems with the book that seem typical of first novels.

The first is that Ronnie is very much an exaggerated and more successful version of the author.  He’s already a multi-millionaire at the opening of the story, having gotten a golden parachute from the buyout of his own start-up company.  It’s not clear why he feels the need to join a venture capital firm; his stated reason would be a motive for keeping the job once it turned sour, but not for taking the job in the first place.

Much is made of Ronnie’s previous service in Israeli covert ops, but it comes to nothing.  More relevant is his flashback to making friends with Gabi, though Ronnie comes off a little too good to be true in his retelling, and I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be deliberate.

The dialogue is often clunky, and the author relies more on tell than show.  One grating moment has the narration tell us that the reason a character uses another character’s name when addressing him was to make the sentence sound more personal.

Speaking of names, the narration stubbornly refuses to give a major character one, resulting in clumsy workarounds.  And eventually we learn there was never a reason the name had to be hidden from the reader to begin with.

Liah’s subplot feels contrived and inserted to amp up the drama rather than organic to the story, resolving mainly off-stage.  (Content warning: discussion of abuse.)

There are also perhaps too many red herrings–Ronnie’s partners at the venture capital firm are acting shady from day one, well before any of the action starts.  And there’s an encounter with a sinister-seeming fellow whose name raises Ronnie’s suspicions, but then vanishes from the story altogether.

All that said, there’s the germ of a good book here.  The overall plot is nicely complex, several scenes are genuinely suspenseful, and Gadi is the best of the characters, competent and roguish.  A competent editor could have improved this book immensely.

If the author steps up his dialogue game and tightens his prose, his next potboiler could be much better.

Book Review: The Inkblots

Book Review: The Inkblots by Damion Searls

“What do you see?”

Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) was a German-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who developed an interesting experiment involving inkblots.  The son of an artist and himself artistically trained, Rorschach was fascinated by visual perception and hoped to use the things people saw when they looked at his inkblots to help understand their minds.  The experiment was surprisingly successful, and the strapped-for-cash doctor barely managed to scrape together enough money to do a first printing of Psychodiagnostics  and the associated illustrated cards.

The Inkblots

Rorschach died short years after the publication of his book, and before he could see the test gain acceptance outside his native Switzerland.  Without its creator to correct any flaws or incorporate new insights, the Rorschach Test became a force to reckon with in international psychology.

This is, according to the introduction, the first full-length biography of Hermann Rorschach, but it’s also a history of his famous creation–which doubles the length of the book.

We learn of Rorschach’s childhood happiness and sorrows, his education in Zurich, his fascination with Russian culture (Hermann married a Russian woman who’d come to Switzerland to become a medical doctor), and his important but poorly paid institutional work.

The inkblots themselves are reminiscent of a children’s game, blotting paper and trying to interpret the shapes.  And some similar psychological experiments had been  tried before.  But Rorschach was the first to craft specific blots, neither too abstract nor too obviously one thing, and to systematize the interpretation of what the examinee saw.

Because the inkblot test interpretation contained both crunchy numbers and fanciful imagery, it could be used in a number of ways.  It was adaptable across language and cultural barriers, unlike many written tests.  So the Rorschach Test grew in popularity and influence, not just in the realm of medical science but in pop culture.  Its imagery resonated in 1940s film noir and 1980s comic books.

But one of the flaws of the test, as Hermann Rorschach noted, was that he’d found something that seemed to work, but not laid a solid theoretical foundation under it that explained how and why it worked.  So the test became itself “a Rorschach test”, with different people reading into it according to their own psychological theorems.  This caused schisms among those who used the test in different ways, and eventually gave rise to a movement that believed Rorschach Tests didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

The author of this biography thinks the inkblot test is still of importance, and still of use.

There are black and white illustrations throughout, and two sections of “colored plates.”  An appendix directly reprints Olga Rorschach’s speech on her husband’s character.   There are extensive end notes and an index.

The subject is fascinating and the writing is interesting, though sometimes veering into deep psychology jargon.  There is discussion of famous cases and people involved with the inkblot test, including Adolf Eichmann!

On a side note, Hermann Rorschach was quite a good-looking fellow, and one of the few psychiatrists who could be played by a Hollywood star without suspending disbelief.

Highly recommended to those with an interest in the history of psychology.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  There was no other compensation requested or offered.  Sadly, the BfB site is closing down, so this will be my last review from that source.

And now, how about a scene from Dark Mirror with a Rorschach-like test?

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

World War One rages in Europe, but for Captain Arthur Hastings, the fighting is over.   Recovering from battle wounds, Hastings is at loose ends until invited to the country manor of his old acquaintance John Cavendish.  Styles Court has changed a bit since Hastings’ childhood visits, as John’s stepmother has remarried.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The former Mrs. Cavendish is now Emily Inglethorp, having married a rather shady character named Alfred Inglethorp.  Alfred has the habit of wearing dark glasses and a long beard that doesn’t quite match his other hair, making him look like someone in disguise.  Emily’s stepsons are not well pleased, but Mrs. Inglethorp controls the purse strings and will have her own way.

While Emily Inglethorp is quite generous, she’s also very keen on having people show due appreciation for her largess, which can be grating.  When she dies of strychnine poisoning, the obvious suspect is Alfred, who the rest of the family assumes married Emily for her money.  But it could also be country squire John Cavendish who’s strapped for money; his brother Stephen, an unsuccessful poet who was medically trained; John’s wife Mary, who is beautiful but not happy in her marriage; Cynthia Murdoch, a pharmacist’s assistant who Mrs. Inglethorp had taken in; Evelyn Howard, Emily’s long-time best friend who’d recently quarreled with her, or just possibly poison expert and foreigner Dr. Bauerstein.

Hastings considers himself a bit of a detective, but all this has him a bit baffled.  Fortunately, among the other beneficiaries of Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity is a houseful of Belgian war refugees in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary, and one of the residents is the man who trained Hastings in the detective arts, former police chief Hercule Poirot.  It will take all of Monsieur Poirot’s “little grey cells” to unravel this mystery!

This was Agatha Christie’s first mystery novel, written in 1916 and serialized in the Times, then published in book form in 1920.  It introduces the eccentric detective Poirot, his frequent sidekick Hastings, and competent but not quite brilliant police officer Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard.   This book made Ms. Christie’s reputation as a rising mystery writer.

Poirot’s age is not clear, although he had a long career in the Belgian police and thirty-year-old Hastings considers him “old.”  Poirot sometimes uses words oddly in English, has an egg-shaped head, and acquired a limp during the war.  He’s got a considerable ego, and enjoys twitting Hastings about the latter’s foibles.  They met in Belgium some time before World War One, under circumstances never fully described.

Hastings is very much a Watson figure in this story, with a good memory but a bit thick.  He’s very much the British gentleman with the traditional values of same, but does tend to let his imagination run away with him.  As the narrator, this helps Agatha Christie as Poirot deliberately omits details of his thought process to keep the too-honest Hastings from alerting suspects to Poirot’s true suspicions.  Hastings, is, however, good at blurting out observations that help Poirot realize key points.

Good:  Poirot is a fun character, and this first novel already shows Ms. Christie’s ability to create a twisty mystery where the culprit is difficult for the casual reader to guess ahead of time.

Less good:  Agatha Christie lays on the red herrings a bit too thickly; she’d get much better at tightening up her books.

There’s a bit of period anti-Semitism, and a scattering of ethnic slurs.  Most notably, Hastings uses a particular slur multiple times in his narration along with slut-shaming (though never speaking that way in dialogue.)  He also shows a distinct double standard when it comes to marital infidelity.  Bad show, old chap.

Overall:  One of Agatha Christie’s lesser books, but well worth going back to after you’ve read one or two of her later Poirot works.  Do, if possible, read this one before Curtain, as that book relies on echoes from this one.

And did you know there was an Agatha Christie anime?

Book Review: Raising Steam

Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Moist von Lipwig has come a long way since his days as a petty con artist.  He’s a (mostly) respectable married man who manages the Ankh-Morpork Post Office, Mint, and Bank.  True, his management is mostly just taking a friendly interest in the employees who do all the actual work, but the system produces good results.  Things could certainly be worse.

Moist’s employer, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is quick to remind him of this–Lord Vetinari could at any time reinstate the sentence of death brought about by Moist’s former crimes.    Which is why the Patrician trusts that Moist will not fail him in this new assignment.

Raising Steam

It seems a young engineer named Dick Simnel has devised a way to make steam power a device that move on rails.  A railroad, if you will.  Mr. Simnel has a dream of using this steam engine to move objects from one place to another very quickly, and building more such engines in great number.  The Patrician has taken an interest in this new technology, and wants Moist to make sure it works to the advantage of Ankh-Morpork.

The task is not without its hazards.  It may be “steam engine time”, but there are those who have had enough of change and progress.  They want to go back to the days of darkness, even if they have to drag everyone else along with them through terrorism.

This is the next to last Discworld novel.  In the previous volume, Snuff, the goblins became recognized as people.  Odd people, but aren’t everyone?  Now they’re a part of Ankh-Morpork culture, and fitting in just fine.  They seem to have a knack for working with engines.

The focus species (besides the usual humans) are the dwarves.  The grags, a reactionary and somewhat mystical group within their ranks, don’t like the changes they see in dwarf society.  Living above ground!  Treating humans and trolls as equals!  Having genders!   And worst of all, not treating the grags as the final authority on dwarf culture!  They’ve managed to radicalize some of the younger dwarves into becoming terrorists for their cause of reversing progress.

The battle against the grags is a relatively minor part of the plot, which is mostly about how awesome steam engines and the railroads are, and the difficulties involved in getting a rail network established.  Sir Terry’s research and love of all things rail shines through as the various characters learn to appreciate this new technology.

Good stuff:  Again, love of steam railroads shines throughout the book and is infectious.  In its way, this is a Utopian work.  The future will be better than the past.  Properly used technology makes people’s lives more enjoyable.  Society can improve, becoming more inclusive and less violent.  Change can be good, and those that refuse to change will be left in the dust.

As Terry Pratchett was aware he was dying while writing this book, it’s also a fond farewell to many of the continuing characters.  I was particularly struck by how many healthily married couples appear.  Too often in fantasy, marriage is the end of a character’s story arc and relevance.  Here, we actually see “happy ever after.”

‘Scuse me, I’m tearing up again.

Despite the fact that technology is the centerpiece of this story and ascendant, this is also still very much a fantasy world, and the magic of the setting is important.

Less good:  At times, this book comes off a little too much like a victory lap.  The heroes have done this sort of thing before, and there isn’t a lot of suspense about whether they’ll succeed this time.  Some passages skirt dangerously close to “when the villains kill it’s murder, when the heroes kill, it’s justice.”

I would not recommend this as anyone’s first Discworld novel.  Too much of the emotional resonance comes from having met these characters before and living through their past struggles with them.  Several cameo appearances will make no sense to new readers.

That said, this is a fine capstone to the Ankh-Morpork storylines of the Discworld series.  (The final volume, The Shepherd’s Crown, takes place in more remote territory and  stars young witch Tiffany Aching.)

You know what, let’s look at some old steam engines in action.

Book Review: The Spider #08: The Mad Horde

Book Review: The Spider #08: The Mad Horde edited by Rich Harvey

Quick recap:  The Spider is a violent vigilante who battles master criminals in 1930s America.  He is secretly wealthy amateur criminologist Richard Wentworth, who believes there are some criminals the police simply aren’t equipped to deal with.  The Spider brands his kills with his red spider insignia so that others won’t be blamed.  Despite his good intentions, the Spider’s methods make him just as much a criminal in the eyes of the law as those he battles!

This volume from the 2005 Bold Venture reprint series primarily reprints the May 1934 issue of The Spider pulp magazine, but leads off with an article from Writer’s Digest in which Norvell Page (who wrote Spider stories under the name “Grant Stockbridge”) describes his writing process.  In particular, he discusses the background of the story “Dance of the Skeletons.”

The Spider #08: The Mad Horde

Page learned that Dime Mystery Magazine had an upcoming hole for a story of a certain length.  He read a couple of back issues to determine what kind of story the editor liked.  Then he checked his files for gruesome bits that might spark an idea.  Page found a note he’d made on a newsreel depiction of piranhas skeletonizing a pig, and he was off to the races.  The article also briefly mentions the genesis of “The Mad Horde.”

That story begins with Richard Wentworth already hot on the trail in Ohio, disguised as Dr. Sven Gustaffson.  He’s investigating the purchase of five thousand dogs from the New York City pound by a vivisectionist named Douglas Brent.   That wasn’t illegal, so the police didn’t intervene, but Wentworth’s files revealed that Brent has a criminal record…and no signs of scientific training.  Why would such a man need so many dogs?

The Spider gets his first clue when he intercepts a police call about an insane man in a nearby house.   Beating the cops there, he learns that the man has already murdered his own children and is in the process of murdering his wife.  The killer’s symptoms are clear–he’s in the grip of hydrophobia–rabies!  The killer is driven off, and Dr. Gustaffson gets a few words from the woman, but then the police arrive and think he’s the killer.  By the time the Spider is able to free himself, the woman is dead.

Fortunately, Wentworth’s chauffeur Ram Singh was parked nearby and saw which direction the fleeing killer went.   They track the maniac to the castle-like home of steel magnate Berthold Healey.     The Spider learns that the pursued man is Rusk, captain of Healey’s security guards.  Rusk summons the last of his sanity to try to warn Healey of something, but a fit of homicidal mania forces the Spider to kill him.

It’s soon clear to the Spider that Brent, now known as the Horde Master, plans to use the dogs (as well as cats, rats and even a few wolves marked with skulls!) as a terror weapon.  By unleashing a mob of rabid animals on a town, Brent would cause fear, madness and death.  And the Horde Master’s price for not attacking is far too high to pay.  Worse, Brent has also made sure to attack and destroy all known supplies of the cure, so that even the small number of people it could have saved are doomed!

The Spider, the faithful Ram Singh, Wentworth’s fiancee Nita Van Sloane, and Professor Brownlee are all that stand between America’s Midwest and the foaming madness of hydrophobia!

Norvell Page shows off a few paragraphs of his research to make the threat seem plausible, but has to invent a new strain of rabies with a much faster onset time and which always results in homicidal tendencies to make sure the story continues at the breakneck pace required by the pulps.  The result is similar to the “fast zombies” of stories like 28 Days Later.  Many, many people die, both infected and not.

As is often the case in Spider stories, the final reveal of who the Horde Master really is and where he’s been hiding is a bit of an anticlimax compared to the means with which he was disposed a chapter earlier.

There’s a touch of period racism in one section.

If you’re looking for an action-packed, horrific pulp story, this one fits the bill.

The magazine also had two back-up stories which are reprinted here.  The first is “Death on Morris Street” by Arthur Leo Zagat, a Doc Turner story.  Andrew “Doc” Turner is a pharmacist who has long run a drugstore in a neighborhood filled with immigrants.   A trusted member of the community, Doc Turner often helps out when his customers are targeted by crime.

In this case, a young woman commits suicide in the drugstore’s phone booth.  Lena Hammerschlag had gone missing a while back, along with a number of other girls from the neighborhood.  She’s the third to show up again–dead!  While the beat policeman is sympathetic, headquarters has no interest in investigating further the suicides of presumed prostitutes.

Doc Turner’s assistant in these matters, red-haired garage worker Jack Ransom, is called in, and sharp-eyed stock boy Abie finds a clue.  It points to the Whileaway Dance Hall a few blocks away.   Time to investigate!

There’s implied rape, and a demonstration of police assuming a rape victim is lying to get revenge on a man for regretted consensual sex.

Abie speaks in a vaudeville accent for comedy, which grates at the end as the mood should be somber.

“An Unfilled Grave” by Winston Bouvé is a tense tale of kidnapping.  Senator Lonergan’s only grandchild has been kidnapped and held for ransom.  Even after the ransom is paid, the kidnappers are still holding out for more money.  But they’ve made one fatal slip, giving a clue to the town they’re hiding out near.

Political operative Link Haley arrives only to find the dairy farmer who’d sent in the clue dying, and giving what sounds like nonsensical final words.  That is, until Sheriff “Pop” Nason prods Haley into realizing what those words really meant.  Except that the family the clues point to can’t be the kidnappers–can they?  Link will need to go undercover to find out!

This one has a happy ending.

Overall, this reprint has good value for money.  It may take a little tracking down, as the reprint rights have switched to a different company that formats it differently.


Book Review: How We Came to Know the Cosmos: Space & Time

Book Review: How We Came to Know the Cosmos: Space & Time by Helen Klus

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

How We Came to Know the Cosmos: Space and Time

The universe is very large, while humans are very small.   We inhabit only an infinitesimal fraction of time and space.   Despite that, we know a fair bit about the vastness around us.  What we know about space and time, and how we learned it, is the focus of this book (which is Part I of II.)

The book starts with a look at constellations, one of the first attempts by humans to make sense of the lights of the night sky.  Then there’s a history of philosophy and science’s growing understanding of how the universe is shaped and how it works.  There is a section on stars, then the objects in the Sol solar system (Pluto is shuffled off to the Kuiper objects section.)  The book finishes up with the search for exoplanets, and the possibility of alien life.

There’s quite a lot of math involved, as the text delves deep into physics (especially astrophysics) along with some chemistry and biology.   And the writing tends to be dry with a few human interest points at rare intervals.  A bright senior high school student should be able to get through this volume, but it’s really more of a college level introduction to the subject.  (Note: this is a “science as it is currently known” book; some religious people may feel slighted by their own theories not being mentioned.)

The Kindle version has both good points and drawbacks.  The footnotes and reference links for each chapter are fully functional, and if your wifi is up, you can go straight to the NASA webpages with more information.  My Kindle is monochrome, so a number of the color illustrations did not work so well for me.  Also, I could not find an index.

This is a British book, and the spelling reflects that.  I did spot a couple of spellchecker typos very late in the volume, suggesting that the proofreader started skimming.

I would recommend this book primarily as a reference work for those with an interest in current space science.  Especially if you’re the sort of person who wants to know a full list of robotic probes which have gone out to  celestial objects and how they fared.

Or, if you prefer visuals, here’s Carl Sagan!

Book Review: How I Resist

Book Review: How I Resist edited by Tim Federle & Maureen Johnson

Disclaimer:  I received this advance uncorrected proof through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  As an uncorrected proof, there will be significant changes between this and the final product.

How I Resist

As I write these words, yet another school shooting has sparked an upsurge in student activism.  Thus the appearance in my mailbox of this collection of essays and interviews on activism and hope aimed at the young adult market was timely.  The selection of authors and artists includes such popular figures as Jodi Picoult and Javier Muñoz, plus a wide variety of folks I have never heard of but younger Americans may be more conversant with.

The first essay in the book is “Could We Please Give the Police Departments to the Grandmothers?” by Junauda Petrus which waxes lyrical about solving crime problems with stern looks and good food.  Very Afrofuturism.  Last is Karuna Riazi with “Refilling the Well”, which is about her emotional self-care while trying to change the world for the better.

One of the hazards of reading such an early proof of the book is that none of the interior illustrations are present, including the ones that are a contributor’s entire entry.  Also, there’s a comics trivia error in Maya Rupert’s essay about imagining a black Wonder Woman that I can’t tell if it’s the author’s or a typesetter glitch.  (Have I mentioned that I’m an annoying nerd about comics trivia?)

I do, however, like the cover with all the author bio pictures.  It does a good job of giving faces to the people writing and drawing these pieces.

This is a collection curated through a strong political lens for a particular type of young person.  If you are the sort of young adult who thinks the right person won in 2016 (Hillary’s loss hit several of the contributors hard); that America’s problems are caused by uppity women, dark-skinned people and “weirdos” being allowed to have a say; and that protests are only acceptable when you don’t have to see them, hear about them or be influenced by them in any way…this book will not go well with you.

Most of the contributions are interesting or thought-provoking–I’m a bit disappointed by Rosie O’Donnell going with a glorified tweet.  The editors have an introduction, mid-word and afterword, which is a bit much, and they come off as trying too hard to be “woke” and “down with the young people.”

There’s a list of suggested reading in the back, ranging from 1984 to We Should All Be Feminists.

Consider this one as a gift for a teenager or college student who’s into political or social activism.  Older readers might want to pick it up if you are a fan of one of the contributors.

Book Review: Lambda I and Other Stories

Book Review: Lambda I and Other Stories edited by John Carnell

New Worlds was a British science fiction magazine that started professional publication in 1946.  Despite some financial hiccups, it was a reasonably good seller, and was still going in the early 1960s when the stories chosen for this anthology were published.  The editor picked stories that had gotten a good reception in Great Britain, but never before published in America.   According to his introduction, this was the first paperback anthology of “foreign” science fiction stories published in the U.S.

Lambda I and Other Stories

“Lambda I” by Colin Kapp leads off with a transportation engineer being visited by an old friend.  It turns out the friend is a psychologist, here to try to reconcile the engineer and that man’s estranged wife.  The science fiction part comes in with the Tau transportation system, which uses a dimensional shift to send ships directly through the Earth so that one can travel in straight lines from one point to another.

It turns out that the Tau system has an inherent stability problem, and if a ship ever became locked into the never-actually-seen-before Omega frequency, disaster would ensue.  The engineer’s futile attempts to forestall this problem led to the stress that caused his marriage to collapse.

Oh, guess what!  Yes, a ship has gone into Omega frequency.  Yes, if it isn’t fixed, the entire Eastern Seaboard will be destroyed.  Yes, the engineer’s wife is aboard and she’s carrying his child!   Yes, there are only a few hours before the dimensional rift, and the one thing that might have a chance of getting the two protagonists there in time is an experimental prototype without proper shielding.

There’s some hallucinatory sequences that would have blown the budget in any 1960s movie as our heroes explore the weird dimensional shift that the lost ship in stranded in.  It turns out that psychic vibrations affect the Tau system, so the psychologist is the one who saves the day.

“Basis for Negotiation” by Brian W. Aldiss takes place in the then-near future of 1971.  America and Red China are at war, with the possibility of escalation into nuclear attacks imminent.  In a startlingly tone-deaf moment, the British Prime Minister has declared Great Britain strictly neutral.  He’s ordered all American military forces out of the British Isles, and is planning to Brexit from NATO.

Sir Simon, Chair of Moral History at the University College of East Lincoln, is livid.   True, he might not currently be in the government, but he feels a deep interest in public affairs.  He must get to London and see what can be done to fix this!  The remainder of the story is his journey to Whitehall and what he finds there.

This story was turned down by all the American magazines Mr. Aldiss submitted it to, possibly because it’s a bit too “insider cricket” (there’s a very House of Cards moment at the end), but it might also have been the relatively sympathetic portrayal of gay Communist David.

Yes, David was in favor of disarmament, but as part of a global reduction of arms, not a unilateral surrender.  And yes, he’s a Communist, but he is by George a British Communist.  One can’t fault his courage or moral fiber, but his combat judgement is poor.  Also, his obsession with classism makes him a very irritating companion for long car trips.

The science part of the science fiction comes in at the last moment and puts a very different cast on what the actions of various characters leads up to.

“Quest” by Lee Harding takes us to a future where robots are everywhere and everywhere looks exactly the same.  One man senses that this is wrong, and goes in search of something, anything, real.  He may be too late.  A grim story.

“All Laced Up” by George Whitley is a comedic tale about interior design.  You may have noticed that iron lace isn’t around much any more.  Especially the really intricate handcrafted stuff.  It turns out there’s a reason for that.  Unusual for having a female…villain? whose motive is pretty much entirely financial.

“Routine Exercise” by Philip E. High involves a time traveling nuclear submarine.  Has a mandatory twist at the end, but some very evocative scenes as the submariners try to figure out what’s going on while being hunted by aliens.

“Flux” by Michael Moorcock is set in a unified Europe of the future.  Max File, prototype superbrain, is called in because the ruling council has discovered that society is going to crash in the next few years.  They don’t know how, and fear that any action by the government to stall the crash will cause it instead.  However, they have a time machine.

File turns out to be the sole living subject of an experiment in creating artificial supergeniuses through vaguely-described education of children.  All the others went mad, and File might have joined them, but the scientists purged much of the excess knowledge from his brain.  He is still, however, the most flexible mind on Earth, and the only one who can be trusted with a time machine to go into the near future to gather information.

File arrives in the ruined future, and learns of the disastrous effects of several different social experiments that collapsed civilization in various ways.  He attempts to return to his present, only to discover that time machines don’t work that way.

Things get progressively weirder as File continues his quest, and finally learns the true nature of time itself.  This allows him to accomplish his goal…sort of.

Mr. Moorcock would soon take the helm of New Worlds and turn it into a haven for the experimental “New Wave” style of science fiction.  This is definitely a forerunner of the movement.

And we finish with “The Last Salamander” by John Rackham.  A coal-burning power plant awakens something from prehistory.  A living thing that is at a temperature that no human could withstand.   One of the workers (actually a company spy) must figure out a way to destroy the creature before it destroys all the workers and surrounding area.   It’s a bit of a sad story, and would have made a good episode of The Outer Limits.

I like “All Laced Up” and “The Last Salamander” best, but “Basis for Negotiation” and “Flux” are pretty good too.  “Quest” is perhaps too predictable.

Recommended to fans of British science fiction, and especially to those who favor Michael Moorcock and Brian W. Aldiss.


Book Review: The Invisible Man

Book Review: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The sleepy village of Iping doesn’t get many visitors in the middle of winter, so when Mrs. Hall gets a new customer (and one that pays on time!) for her boarding house, it’s not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth.  It’s true the guest is something of an odd duck.  He keeps himself fully clothed and bandaged at all times, and wears dark glasses, performs mysterious chemical experiments in the parlor, and has a nasty temper.  But the stranger (odd, I don’t think he ever gave a name) keeps to himself and, again, pays on time.

The Invisible Man

But as winter melts into spring, the little oddities of the stranger begin to rub people the wrong way.  Plus, there are some mighty weird events in the village.  And the guest appears to be running out of money, so Mrs. Hall is running out of patience with his eccentricity.  After the vicar and his wife are robbed by an unseen criminal, the stranger suddenly has money–could there be a connection?  The Halls decide to have it out with their boarder once and for all–but they could never have guessed his secret!

The power of invisibility and its potential abuses have been the subject of fanciful stories since time immemorial.  This 1897 novel has one of the first truly thought-out considerations of how one might become invisible and the consequences thereof.  Griffin, the Invisible Man, is not so much invisible as transparent, having found a way to alter the refractory properties of human flesh, blood and bone.  He started out as an albino, so didn’t have to worry so much about the pigmentation of skin or hair.  His eyes are partially visible, so that he can see.

Griffin claims that he can treat cloth to make it invisible, but never actually does so, requiring him to run around in the nude for much of the story, a nasty handicap in inclement weather.  While the Invisible Man is certainly a threat on an individual level, his dreams of rulership require him to have visible accomplices.  Unfortunately for Griffin, his choices of lazy tramp Thomas Marvel and old schoolmate Kemp both backfire.

While it’s suggested that either the formula itself or the permanency of his invisible condition have driven Griffin insane, it’s also clear that he was not the most stable of scientists before his transformation.  When his job as a poorly-paid college demonstrator  (TA) prevented him from pursuing his experiments with optics, Griffin had no hesitation in stealing money from his father.  Griffin has no qualms when the old man commits suicide, only annoyed that he must set aside time to go to the funeral.  Griffin is bigoted even by the standards of his time, quick with ethnic, gender-based, and ableist slurs, and is cruel to a cat.

Kemp is quick-witted, and intelligently tries to stop Griffin before the Invisible Man can escalate his reign of terror.  (But it’s too late for the one man Griffin definitely murders as opposed to probably murders.)

There’s quite a bit of incidental humor in the story.  My favorite bit is the visiting American who just happens to be carrying a large firearm and starts shooting randomly in the direction of the Invisible Man, apparently in the belief that sufficient firepower can solve any problem.  (In fairness, he does manage to wing Griffin.)

Those more familiar with the movie versions might find the long early section before the big reveal dragging.  Still, it’s a classic for a reason, and the last section is genuinely suspenseful.

Recommended to science fiction and horror fans who enjoy stories of invisibility.

And here’s Claude Rains as Griffin:

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway  by Seanan McGuire

Nancy went through a door to the Halls of the Dead.  She learned to enjoy the skill of remaining perfectly still, and wearing elegant black and white clothing.  When she asked to stay forever, the Lord of the Dead asked her to be sure–and sent her home.  The journey changed her, and Nancy’s parents can’t understand why she isn’t their “little rainbow” any more.  But somehow they’ve learned of a place that might be able to help.

Every Heart a Doorway

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for young people with the “delusion” that they went to another world and want to return rather than stay on Earth.  It seems that a fair number of children every year walk through doors or fall through mirrors or get lost in the woods, and find Fairyland or the Webworld or the Moors.  Some of them never return and are indistinguishable from missing children that just died, but others return by their own will or another’s.  Maybe they aged out, or they broke the Rules, or they just went home to say goodbye and couldn’t find the entrance again.

And a certain number of those returnees are able to adjust to life back on Earth, and get on with their lives, but the ones who can’t and are lucky enough find their way to the Home.  There they’ll live among people who more or less understand what they’ve been through and get education until they can either live with their memories or find their way back where they belong.  (There’s a sister school in Maine for kids who went to the absolute wrong world and need treatment for their trauma.)

Nancy meets Eleanor West (who could go back anytime but no longer has the childish mindset needed to thrive in her Nonsense world), and is made roommates with Sumi, who went to a candy-themed dimension, and has become a madcap bundle of clashing bright colors and energy.    Despite their very different styles, Sumi takes a liking to Nancy and drags her around to meet some of the other students.

There’s Kade, who was tossed out when the fairies discovered he was a prince instead of the princess they wanted.  Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill (short for Jillian), whose mentors were a mad scientist and vampire respectively, and left their world one step ahead of a pitchfork and torch-bearing mob.  Christopher, who can make skeletons dance, and twenty or thirty others.

Nancy is just beginning to learn the ropes and settle in when one of the students is mutilated and murdered.  And that’s only the first death.  Nancy comes in for some suspicious as she’s been to an Underworld and the murders started after her arrival, but she’s pretty sure she isn’t responsible.  But who or what is, and why?

This dark fantasy young adult novel is by Seanan McGuire, who does a nice line in urban fantasy and horror.   Kids going to fantasy worlds has been a sub-genre of speculative fiction for decades; Narnia is mentioned (though it’s considered unrealistic by the students–they think it’s just fiction.)  In Japan they’re called isekai stories and are so common that one literary prize banned them from consideration for a year.   But few stories have considered that all these tales are taking place on the same Earth, and what aftereffects that might have.

The proceedings are a bit gruesome, and more sensitive junior high readers might want to skip this one until they are ready.

The writing quality is excellent, and there are a number of fascinating characters.  That said, the majority of the students are self-centered to a degree I found unsympathetic, which may make sense for troubled teens but does not please me.   The mystery aspect was pretty easy for me to figure out, and most savvy readers should figure it out a few pages before the protagonists do.

At some level, this book is metaphorically about how young people find their own identities in adolescence, often very different from what seemed to be the case in childhood, and their parents and other authority figures sometimes are not able to accept this.   This is most directly addressed with Kade, whose parents will welcome him any time he starts calling himself “Katie” again.

This book has been amazingly popular with its intended audience, and there are two more so far in the Wayward Children series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (prequel) and Beneath the Sugar Sky (a sequel with a very surprising character.)  I am hoping at some point we’ll see the sister school and some of its students.

Recommended to young adult fantasy fans, with a slight emphasis on girls.

And here’s the Japanese equivalent, which is more heavily aimed at boys:

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