Book Review: Hen of the Baskervilles

Book Review: Hen of the Baskervilles by Donna Andrews

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, this review is of an Advance Reading Copy, and there may be small changes in the final text.

Hen of the Baskervilles

Meg Langslow is a blacksmith in the Virginia city of Caerphilly, although she isn’t doing any smithing in this particular volume.  It seems that (as in real life) the Virginia State Fair has run into severe financial trouble, and various communities and counties have decided to put on their own fairs, in an effort to become the new must-see event.  Caerphilly’s entry into this competition is the “Un-Fair”, which is basically a jumped-up county fair, notable for being in two counties–the midway is in adjacent Clay County, which is causing some jurisdiction friction between city police and county sheriff’s office.

Thanks to her superior organizing skills and having an extensive network of useful relatives and friends, Meg has been drafted into being assistant director of the fair.  Which would be stressful enough without a rash of theft and vandalism just before the fair is set to open.   The title comes from a garbled memory of one theft’s victims, and it’s mentioned a couple of times how much of a stretch it is.

Things get even dicier when the boyfriend of one of the fair’s most hated exhibitors turns up murdered.  With clashing law enforcement  stomping about, more missing animals and a slew of suspects, can Meg figure out what’s really going on before the fair is closed down for good?

The Meg Langslow mystery series has birds in the title of each book, previous cases aren’t much referred to, except that by now Meg has an extensive list of defense attorneys in case anyone she knows is arrested.  As someone who’s been to many county fairs, I found the setting charming and reasonably authentic.  The characters were also pretty enjoyable, especially the person everyone thought would be murdered.  The mystery worked well, and had a plausible solution.

Based on this volume, I would read other Meg Langslow books, but I might want to check them out from the library as the recent ones are only available in expensive hardbacks.

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner

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

Flag

This is an autobiography of Claire Conner, daughter of Stillwell J. Conner, one of the first members of the John Birch Society and one of its most fierce advocates.  In it, she shares the history of her family’s involvement with the notorious right-wing organization, and her personal journey from loyal but naive supporter of her parents’ cause through skepticism and eventually to rejection.

The John Birch Society, for those who may be unfamiliar, was founded in the 1950s by candy entrepreneur Robert Welch to fight the overwhelming menace of the  international Communist conspiracy.  It was named after a former missionary murdered by the Chinese Communists under murky circumstances, and stood against all forms of Communism and what its members believed to be Communist fronts.  The UN?  Communist plot.  Ending racial segregation?  Communist plot.  Being anti-Communist but not in the same way as the John Birch Society?   Communist plot.

This is a sad story in many ways.  According to Ms. Conner’s account, her parents’ fanaticism blinded them to the damage they were doing to their family relationships.  It also blinded them to the flaws in those they allied with, be it Holocaust deniers, violent criminals or just political opportunists.   She recalls several instances of people being stuffed down her father’s memory hole rather than have him admit he was ever wrong about them.

The Conners also seemed never to notice that the dire predictions of a Communist takeover in four, five years tops, never came true, never came close to coming true.   The JBS never admitted that previous predictions were wrong, just kept doomsaying to keep the troops in line and the money flowing.

A particularly telling story is that Ms. Conner’s parents, despite finding thousands of dollars each year to spend on the Society’s cause, told her that they could not spare one penny for her college education and she would have to pay for it on her own.  Then when she won a generous scholarship, forced her to turn it down as they had already picked a more expensive college for her to go to.  She reports that her father exploded with rage when asked why, if Claire had to pay for her own education, she couldn’t choose her own school.

Ms. Conner also discusses her involvement with the pro-life movement, originally stemming from her personal experience and her religious convictions, and how it was co-opted by political opportunists who didn’t actually care about the children, just about enraging their donor base into giving more money.

The book also discusses how parts of the JBS ethos are still alive and well in today’s Tea Party and other right-wing groups.  The John Birch Society itself may be a tiny shell of what it once was, but rabid hatred of big government , racism and a fear of the Left still linger.

There are many footnotes, and a complete index, but no illustrations.

I highly recommend this book to history buffs, those curious about right-wing politics, and those interested in biography.

 

Book Review: Blind Dates and Broken Hearts: The Tragic Loves of Matthew Murdock

Book Review: Blind Dates and Broken Hearts: The Tragic Loves of Matthew Murdock by Ryan K. Lindsay

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

Blind

Matthew Murdock is the Marvel Comics character known as Daredevil, a blind lawyer blessed with a “radar sense” that allows him to sense his surroundings which he uses to fight crime.  Since his creation in 1964, Daredevil has gone through several love interests, most of the relationships having ended badly.  In large part this is because of the Marvel formula of soap opera plotting ensuring that there must always be more drama coming, that no major character can ever stay happy.

This volume touches upon that, but is more interested in what it says about Matt Murdock and his relationships in-story.  There are sections on the five most important love interests in the Daredevil comics, from overly clingy Karen Page through dangerous Elektra to sensible Milla Donovan.  A couple of other girlfriends get a brief mention.  Each gets a look at her personality, their plot function and what their relationship with Daredevil tells us about him.

This is more an extended essay in a double-spaced pamphlet than a book.  There are a few illustrations and a couple of footnotes but no table of contents , bibliography or index.  I spotted a couple of spellchecker-passed typos.  On the good side, it really felt like the author had taken the time to reread the entire Daredevil series.

If you are a huge Daredevil fan or the kind of person who loves analyzing superheroes’ love lives, then Blind Dates and Broken Hearts is for you.  I really cannot recommend it to the layperson, as it assumes familiarity with the material.

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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

Lies

Locke Lamora is a con artist and thief living in the city of Camorr, a sort of fantasy version of Venice strongly influenced by Dickens and Machiavelli, and probably named after the Camorra, a real-life Italian organized crime group.  Orphaned…presumably…at a young age, Locke learned thieving early on, and took to it well.  He has his own gang, the Gentleman Bastards, and they are secretly far more successful than they’ve been letting on to Capa Barsavi, the local crimelord.

The Gentleman Bastards are in the middle of a really big scam when their plans collide with other plotters, one of whom is willing to do the unthinkable in order to achieve their goal.  Tragedy ensues, and Locke must scheme faster and meaner than ever before if he is to survive, let alone come out ahead.

This book doesn’t have any likable characters, though a few are somewhat sympathetic or act for a cause greater than themselves.  Locke’s one virtue is loyalty to his very small group of friends.  He also has a bottom line he won’t cross, which makes the person who will the villain of the story.  He and his compatriots are quite clever, however, which makes this a good caper story.

Trigger Warning: Torture is practiced by several characters, including Locke.

Due to much of the plotline being dependent on twists, it’s hard to be specific without being spoilery.   I did feel that one section towards the beginning was a bit padded.  We see a twist, then the reveal that it’s a con game, and then flash back to a long sequence of Locke and his gang preparing for this trick.   It didn’t establish much that wasn’t covered elsewhere in the book, and could have been cut, allowing the reader to figure out how it was done.

This is the first of seven planned books about Locke Lamora.  The second, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is already available, and the third, The Republic of Thieves, is scheduled for release in October.   (This giveaway was presumably to create buzz for that.)

The lack of characters I want to continue reading about really hurt the book in my opinion.  Others may find Locke more lovable.

Book Review: Conquering the Chaos

Book Review: Conquering the Chaos by Ravi Venkatesan

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

Chaos

This book is subtitled “win in India, win everywhere” and part of its message is that a multinational company that learns how to compete in India will be able to export that information to the global market.  To be a bit more clear, this book is not about offshoring (moving your night customer service to India, say) or how Indian business people succeed in their own country.  It’s aimed at executives whose multinational wants to do big business in India.

Mr. Venkatesan has experience in the field, having served as Chairman of both Cummins India and Microsoft India.   He also interviewed a number of other executives, successful and not so successful, about their experiences in India.

I have to say I really like the cover, with its sunny colors.  Overall, I’d say that the Harvard Business Review Press did a good job on the presentation, and since I don’t usually notice such things, that’s actual praise.

The book itself is a little dry and heavy on the business jargon; this is not a book for the layperson.  (As it happens, I’m taking courses in Business Management, so the jargon is fresh in my mind.)  Adjusting for that, the examples are interesting, both in the success stories and some of the failures.

The book covers a wide variety of subjects related to doing business in India, from making the right choice for country manager, through building an organization structure that works in the culture, to dealing with the endemic corruption and volatility of an emerging nation.

A fair amount of what the author suggests for success is obvious in hindsight–but in that position I would have had to figure it out by trial and error.  The lessons this book has are most relevant to the India market, but can be adapted to any emerging nation.  Even strictly local businessfolk should be able to find something they can apply to their situation.

There are notes and a good index at the back.  In addition to executives who may be headed off to India or other emerging markets, I would recommend this book to business students looking for something a little different to read and possibly cite.

 

Book Review: Spur #30 Boise Belle

Book Review: Spur #30 Boise Belle by Dirk Fletcher

Spur

I’m not sure what this type of book is called in the marketing department, so I’m going to borrow a phrase from the pulps and call it “spicy Western.”   This is a subgenre of the Western, usually in long-running paperback series, in which a tough Western hero fights outlaws and other baddies, pausing every few chapters for fairly explicit sex scenes.  It’s plot with porn, rather than porn with plot.

And what is that plot, you ask?  Spur McCoy is a Secret Service agent who has come to the Idaho Territory to investigate threats against the governor, who is running for re-election.  He’s not sure if a rash of vigilante killings is related to this or not.  Spur’s slightly distracted by the governor’s lusty and barely legal daughter, and a pretty widow (whose husband was killed by the vigilantes in a mistaken attack.)  There’s also polygamous Mormons in the mix.

The local law enforcement has been lax in dealing with the vigilantes as they save the cost of a trial, but as Spur notes, once you let one bunch of people take the law into their own hands, other people want to get into the act.  More killings indicate there’s a new vigilante in town, with a very different agenda.

This isn’t a mystery; the readers are let in on what’s going on well before Spur figures it out.  Still, it’s a bit more complex plot than many of this subgenre have.

Sadly, the paperbacks are overpriced new; check garage sales and suchlike if you think this is the sort of thing you’d be interested in.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Robin Blake

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

Dark Waters by Robin Blake

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

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

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

Trigger Warning:  period slut-shaming.

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

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

Book Review: The Jewels of Aptor

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

The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Murder for Revenge

Book Review: Murder for Revenge edited by Otto Penzler

Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: The Spider #7

Book Review: The Spider #7 by Grant Stockbridge

The Spider #7--decpetive cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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