Book Review: Redshirts

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve been avoiding reviews of this book, so this may be very redundant of other things you’ve read about Redshirts.

redshirts

The Universal Union capital ship Intrepid has a problem.  Or rather, the crew does.  Especially the lower-ranked members.  It seems that every time one of the senior officers or the astrogator go on an away mission with a lower-ranked crewmember, that crewmember dies, frequently in improbable ways.  Seriously, ice sharks?  Yet the senior officers always survive.

New crew member Ensign Andrew Dahl isn’t just going to try to avoid the issue, like many of the other lower ranks.  He’s going to investigate with the help of a handful of other people in harm’s way.  But what he finds may be more than even someone trained in esoteric philosophy can handle.

This is a very metatextual novel, and a funny one.  The parallels to classic Star Trek are deliberate and pointed out in the story itself.  It’s difficult to explain further without getting into serious spoiler territory.

After the main story, there are three codas involving minor characters and how the events of the story affect their lives.  The first is a little weak, but the other two hold up nicely.

I recommend this book for science fiction fans in general and Star Trek fans in particular, and those who enjoy metatextual fiction.

Book Review: City of Nets

Book Review: City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

The book’s title comes from a Bertolt Brecht opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” Brecht had not yet come to Hollywood at the time, but “like a net set for edible birds” is a plausible description of the town.

City of Nets

“City of Nets” has little original research in it, being more a collection of anecdotes combed from more specific books. It’s arranged by year, from 1939 to 1950, with stories flashing back and forward as people are introduced when their movies are important. I think the closest comparison I can make to a movie is “That’s Entertainment!” It skips from person to person, story to story, never really settling down and examining one story in detail.

Still, it’s interesting for seeing the larger picture of what the trends were in Hollywood year by year, and what was happening at the same time. The serious scholar will be more interested in the extensive bibliography and footnotes suggesting further lines of research. Since the book was written during the Reagan years, the postscript is dated, and most of the people mentioned (including Reagan) have passed on.

I picked up my copy very cheaply used; I recommend you do the same.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy

George

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

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

Book Review: Aim High

Book Review: Aim High by Joseph A. West

Cover of Aim High by Joseph A. West

If you’ve been around the small-press horror magazine scene for a while, you may already be familiar with the work of Joseph A. West.  His distinctive primitive art style, heavy on sloping foreheads, large noses and jutting jaws, has graced many a magazine.  He also is a poet and filled spots with prose where needed.

‘Ol Uncle Joe is 91 as of this writing, and a collected volume of his work has finally been published by Witch Tower Press of Minneapolis.  I happened to attend one of his readings at Dreamhaven Books (won’t get the chance again, I figured) and picked up the book there.

It’s arranged by category of work (with drawings throughout), Verse, Tales, Nonfiction, Random Musings and Illustrations.  The strongest sections are the first and the last.  Mr. West’s earthy and sometimes macabre  sense of humor works best in his poems, and his art is what he’s most known for.  The middle sections have generally good stuff, but there’s a lot of repetition as the same subjects and jokes come up several times.

Literary horror fans may be most interested in the accounts of H.P Lovecraft’s house, and a visit with August Derleth.  I do wish there were more nonfiction pieces aoout Mr. West’s experiences as a small press artist.  I bet there would be some juicy tales there!

I would primarily recommend this book to fans of small press horror who may have fond memories of Mr. West’s work, and those interested in the history of the field.

 

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings by L. Ron Hubbard

Full Disclosure: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it. Presumably this was influenced by my review of an earlier book in the series, “If I Were You.”

The Devil--with Wings

This volume is part of the “Golden Age Stories” reprints of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp writing. A lot of effort has been put into making the book physically attractive, and the appearance is of very high quality. I wish some other authors got the same treatment!

The short novel within is set in 1930s Manchukuo, a part of northeastern China set up as a puppet state by the Japanese invaders. The Japanese are being battled by a man they call “Akuma no Hane”, which the author translates as “the devil with wings.” (A closer translation would be “The Devil’s Feather.” Most of the names of Japanese people are likewise suspect.) This mysterious black-clad aviator has been harrying their troops for the last three years.

But now it seems Akuma no Hane has gone too far, killing the American civil engineer Robert Weston. Now, not only is Captain Ito Shinohari of Japanese Intelligence after the aviator, but Bob’s sister Patricia is also out for blood. Now the pilot and his faithful sidekick Ching must race to discover the truth and head off a Russian-japanese war!

This is an exciting pulp story, foll of action and gunplay. The centerpiece is a fierce dogfight told from Patricia’s confused viewpoint in the back of Akuma no Hane’s plane. The period racism is toned down considerably; Shinohari isn’t evil because he’s Japanese, but because he cares more about his own advancement than the good of his country. The Japanese in general are in the wrong, but that’s because they’re invaders, not the color of their skin.

The story does less well with Patricia, whose bravery and determination are emphasized in her first confrontation with Akuma no Hane, And then…she accomplishes absolutely nothing in the story, becoming a tagalong for the Devil. There’s a romance angle, but it’s badly shoehorned in towards the end. A woman with agency Patricia is not. If that sort of thing bothers you, take off a point.

The volume comes with a glossary, which will be helpful for readers who are unfamiliar with 1930s history, plus the same introduction and potted hagiography of L. Ron Hubbard that comes with every volume in the series, plus a several page preview of “The Green God,” another volume in the series.

This is a very quick read, and with the recycled material, I cannot recommend paying full price for this one. If you enjoy daring tales of aviation and the Far East, check to see if you can get The Devil–with wings from your library, or wait until it shows up used.

Book Review: Brandwashed

Book Review: Brandwashed: How Marketers and Advertisers Obscure the Truth, Manipulate Our Minds, and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom.

Disclaimer: I got this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the expectation I would write a review. My copy is an uncorrected proof, and minor changes (possibly major changes to the final chapter) are likely to occur in the final product.

Brandwashed

The first thing I noticed reading the introduction is that apparently Martin Lindstrom does not have a library card. Also, it’s pretty clear that he has never had to look for a discarded newspaper to get the help wanted ads–let alone consider getting breakfast that way. From the introduction, Mr. Lindstrom lives a life of incredible privilege, in both the scholarly and layman’s senses of the word. A glimpse into a very different world than my own.

The subtitle does a good job of summing up what “Brandwashed” is about. Like the 1957 Vance Packard classic “The Hidden Persuaders”, this book looks at the various means advertisers and marketers use to manipulate consumers into buying things. Fifty years of technological and psychological innovation have vastly improved their ability to do so, of course, so you will want both books.

Mr. Lindstrom is a very successful marketing consultant, so many of the examples in Brandwashed are from his own experience. (On the other hand, most of the organizing of the book and connecting paragraphs are by his ghost writer.) I was fascinated by what he claims to have learned about how Russians *actually* feel towards vodka.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is more on how to fight “brandwashing”, to prevent this manipulation from turning you into a shopping addict or spending money you don’t have on crap you don’t need. There’s almost nothing in this line in the book, though Mr. Lindstrom does seem in favor of tighter regulations of health claims on non-drug products.

Overall, much interesting and possibly useful information. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in advertising and marketing.

Book Review: Universal Station

Book Review: Universal Station by Beth Brown.

This volume is by the Beth Brown who also wrote “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. Like that book, it’s a light fantasy about the afterlife. (Indeed, one of the main characters is a dog.)

Universal

Broadway musician Johnny dies in a plane crash during World War Two, and is met on “the other side” by his psychopomp, who happens to also be his beloved grandfather.  Grand escorts Johnny to the eponymous station, a transit hub for spirits to rest and recover while they get ready to move on to their final destination.

Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of dead Nazis just now, and they launch a coup to take over the Universal Station and run it their way.  Johnny and his now-talking dog must flee this onslaught.

Sadly, the charm of a talking dog is overwhelmed by the repetitive, preachy dialogue about the nature of the afterlife and how right Johnny’s grandfather, Grand, is about everything.

There’s a romance in the backstory, but if anything the dialogue in it is even more nauseating in its preciousness.

There’s a different book going on in the background that would be arguably more interesting, and whose midpoint would be about the end of this book. In it are all the actual action scenes, and the adventures of Johnny’s love interest trying to escape the Nazis.

This is an interesting curio, but it’s easy to see why it’s fallen into the memory hole.

Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

Book Review: Blood Lance

Book Review: Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson

lance

This is the fifth Crispin Guest novel, featuring a disgraced knight of the Fourteenth Century who takes up a career of detection, earning the nickname “Tracker.” I have not read the previous volumes.

Guest happens to witness a man falling from a bridge into the Thames. By the time he reaches the man, the fallen person is already dead–and he didn’t drown. The dead man was an armourer, who it would appear owned a piece of the Lance of Longinius, a relic that supposedly pierced the side of Jesus Christ, and grants victory in battle. The lance has since gone missing, and multiple parties are working at crosspurposes to find it. Two of these are old friends of Crispin’s, but are they his friends now?

All this is set against political maneuverings in the English court, as soon-to-be adult King Richard’s favorite is losing his grip on power. The climax of the novel is an exciting trial by combat, with the actual solution of the mystery for a coda.

The noir elements are quite obvious; the morally ambiguous but still upright protagonist, everyone having secrets and many of those unpleasant, miserable weather and darkness (at least at the beginning, authorities who can’t be trusted and the detective’s falling for a woman too close to the case.

One tricky element of the story is the Spear. This is, apparently, not the first time Crispin Guest has come into contact with a supposed holy object. And while it’s left ambiguous whether or not the Spear actually has any powers, (Guest himself is a skeptic) the coincidences keep piling up. Towards the end, at least one character believes that these are not coincidences, and that artifacts seek out Crispin for a purpose as yet unknown.

It’s a good read by itself, and I would certainly be willing to look up other volumes in the series.

Disclosure:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an ARC, so minor changes may have been made in the final product.

 

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

wheels

The Avenger is one of the classic hero pulp characters, a man so strongly affected by a horrific crime that all color drained from his skin and hair, and his face became frozen.  Determined that no one else should suffer as he had, Richard Benson gathered a few allies who felt as strongly as he did about crime, and founded Justice, Inc.

This volume is one of the Sanctum Books reprints, containing several stories.

“Murder On Wheels”:  The plot of this story involves a stolen prototype super-car that revolutionizes automotive engineering.  But it’s far more notable for being the story in which Kenneth Robeson (actually Paul Ernst using the house name) changed the Avenger.  Apparently, sales of the Avenger magazine weren’t doing as well as expected, so management decided that perhaps the Avenger was just a little too weird for the readers to relate to.  So it was that Richard Benson was subjected to a super-science death trap that didn’t actually kill him, but did cure his albinism and nerve damage.  He was also de-aged by the narration.

The story also introduces Cole Wilson, the last member of Justice, Inc. to join.  For much of the story he’s a surprisingly enigmatic character, who may be playing both ends against the middle.

Murder On Wheels does show some seams where the mandatory new elements don’t quite jibe with the old ones, but the writer does manage to give a sense of urgency and surprise to the Avenger’s transformation,  making it clear that this is an important change.

“The Three Gold Crowns”  is the first full story of the new-look Avenger.  Justice, Inc. is hired by a man who’s being blackmailed..by three of the most respected men in the city.  An anonymous tramp is run over by a train.  A young woman fears for her life after apparently witnessing a murder.  Alll of these events are connected by the mysterious three gold crowns.

After several stories with heavy sfnal or horrific elements, The Three Gold Crowns is a relatively mundane plotline.  Only a murder by way of modern painting is truly bizarre.  Instead, interest is kept up by way of twists, turns and the fact that the whole truth isn’t being told.  As the new kid, Cole Wilson gets quite a bit of focus in the story.

A fine tale with an explosive ending.

“Death To the Avenger” is a later piece by Emile C. Tepperman, who took over the writing duties after the Avenger’s magazine ended and he became a back-up character in other pulps.  This is a more hard-boiled tale, and a shorter one.  Richard Benson decides to get rid of a particularly well-connected mobster, only to have said criminal kidnap Nellie Gray to force a hostage swap.  Bad news, criminal, the Avenger doesn’t do hostage swaps.

Rounding out this volume is a Whisperer tale, “High Explosive” by Alan Hathaway writing as Clifford Goodrich.  A mad scientist is threatening the city with a new development in seemingly unstoppable bombs, and Police Commissioner James “Wildcat” Gordon, aka the Whisperer, must stop him.  A quick, thrilling adventure.

Overall:  Highly recommended to pulp fans for the historic value–beginners may want to seek out the first volume for the more iconic tales.

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