Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks by Robert Lory

This is another Ace Double, two small books combined into one upside-down from each other so they make a fair-sized paperback.  In this case, a short novel and several short stories by former ad executive Robert Lory.

Lamp1Masters of the Lamp is a spy novel set in the far future.  Two agents of the Federation’s Intelligence Arm have gone missing, and the Head, an organic supercomputer, suspects a connection.  It’s up to Shamryke Odell (named after a long-extinct plant), top agent, to discover what’s up.  Though he prefers to work alone, Sham is teamed up with Aleya Nine of the Merchants’ Guild.  He’s reminded that she’s an expendable partner.

Soon enough, the agents find themselves bound to Marquette, the planet of religious fanatics.  And not just one denomination, but all sorts of religious fanatics.  Disguised as pilgrims, Sham and Aleya must discover what’s really going on behind the scenes, who’s responsible and what their ultimate goal is.

The story is James Bond-ish, with gadgets, double agents and people being killed just as they’re about to spill the secret.  Sham is alleged to be a ladies’ man, but doesn’t get any until after the story ends.  Religious belief is generally treated as a bit silly, but at least one bit of dogma turns out to be a life-saver for the cult that practices it.

Lamp2

A Harvest of Hoodwinks is an anthology of short tales linked by the theme of deception.  The most striking of the stories is “Because of Purple Elephants,” in which two small children discover an alien spaceship, with telepathic invaders aboard.  The older of the boys must make a decision that could save Earth or mean death.  “The Star Party” is interesting for following the notion of a genuine astrologer to a painful conclusion.  “Just a God” deals with an abrupt change in theology.  And “Debut” is a very short piece that’s almost all twist.

“Snowbird and the Seven Warfs,” about a Cheyenne man mistakenly drafted into an alien game show, demonstrates one of the problems that crops up in Ace Doubles.  They were still using rather old-fashioned standards when it came to talking about sex, even in 1970.  Thus the last few paragraphs take a very roundabout approach to implying that the man has had his penis enlarged.

This isn’t the best Ace Double I’ve read, but it was bargain priced, and “Debut” really is a gem.

Book Review: The 47 Ronin

The 47 Ronin by A.B. Mitford

47

This is an abridged and dolled-up reprint of A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan with lots of color illustrations.  Tales was originally published in 1871, as Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, a member of the British legation in Tokyo, witnessed the rapid modernization of Japan.  He decided to set down some traditional stories before they were completely altered by new attitudes and customs.

The centerpiece, of course, is the mostly-true story of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death against the enemy who caused his downfall.  The ronin are culture heroes of Japan, who have been imbued with the virtues of honor and self-sacrifice by the frequent retelling of their story.  As such, the behavior shown in this version may seem exotic and a little puzzling to modern Western readers.  They’re all so polite!

(There is an upcoming movie which casts Keanu Reeves as a forty-eighth ronin character written specifically to shoehorn a partially-white person into the story so that Americans will watch it.  I recommend the Stan Sakai comic book adaptation instead.  Read the review for that here.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/)

There are several other stories of revenge and bloodshed, but also some light-hearted moments, and tales of the supernatural, including both evil and good cats.  In between stories, Mr. Mitford has scattered information on the samurai swords, sumo wrestling and other interesting topics.  The book finishes with scholarly appendixes on ritual suicide and funerary rites as they were then practiced in Japan.

The writing style may seem overly formal to modern readers, but is free of the more purple filigree often associated with Victorian literature.  I strongly recommend this book to students of Japanese culture, and to manga/anime fans interested in the roots of some stories they’ve only seen modern adaptations of.  (The original text is in the public domain, so should be easy to find in less expensive formats.)

Book Review: Deadly Defiance

Book Review: Deadly Defiance by William Manchee

Deadly

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

This is the tenth volume in a series about Stan Turner, a Dallas based attorney for the firm of Turner and Waters.  It’s 1995, and the law firm is going through a bit of a financial crunch.  Their current clients don’t seem to be likely to help with that much.  First, there’s Maureen Thompson, whose bankruptcy filing is put on hold when her estranged husband turns up dead from multiple icepick wounds.   Which might be defensible–except that her first husband died of the same thing!

Then there’s the Alvarez family, impoverished immigrants, who are seeking a wrongful death settlement from a notorious sweatshop owner with ties to organized crime.  There’s also the search for a missing heir, but the family involved in that doesn’t want to pay to have him found–though they might pay Stan to drop the search.

This book is more of a procedural than a fair play mystery, full of filings and legal maneuverings.   And our protagonists aren’t exactly squeaky clean; Stan’s partner Paula Waters in particular does some questionable things to ensure she’ll get paid, which could easily come back to bite her later.  There are some exciting scenes involving a Mexican drug cartel.

I think the book could have used another editorial pass.  The first chapter starts with a paragraph that makes it look as though Stan’s wife Rebekah will be doing something in the chapter, but switches gears to Stan’s day at the office.  References to previous volumes are shoehorned in (I’d recommend just going with footnotes) Also, there are a couple of apostrophe use typos.    The pacing is better in the later chapters.

A decent read, but overall a little unsatisfying.

Book Review: The Boy Knight

Book Review: The Boy Knight by G. A. Henty

boy

G.A. Henty (1852-1902) was a writer of children’s historical fiction, who began his career as an author after a friend heard him telling bedtime stories to his kids.  Like many Victorian authors, he’s out of favor these days, but my parents found this book at an estate sale.

Cuthbert is fifteen when the story begins, a lad of mixed Norman and Saxon blood during the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.)  This gives him ties to both his late father’s cousin, the Earl of Evesham, and his mother’s relative, the landless freeman Cnut.  Learning that the Earl plans to rid the forest of the landless men, Cuthbert warns them in time, then happily finds a way for the woodsmen to help save the Earl’s daughter from his real enemy, the Baron of Wortham.

Recognized for his bravery and cleverness, Cuthbert is made the Earl’s squire when a Crusade is called.  The noble (in the best sense of the word) lad is quickly noted by King Richard, and soon becomes a knight.  Alas, after many adventures the old Earl dies without a male heir, but before he goes convinces Richard to appoint Cuthbert the new Earl of Evesham and the betrothed of the old Earl’s lovely daughter.

More adventures later, Cuthbert arrives back in England incognito, to discover that wicked Prince John has appointed one of his unpleasant cronies as Earl and betrothed.  Now Cuthbert must defeat the false Earl, save the maiden and find the missing true king.  With a little help from Robin Hood and Blondel, he accomplishes all this.

The prose is rather stiff with an antiquated vocabulary–today’s children might get the impression that they’re reading a book for grown-ups.  Those looking for deep characterization are likely to be disappointed.  Cuthbert begins the story honest, kind, brave and clever, and remains so throughout.  His primary character flaw is that he is, perhaps, just a little too boyishly fond of adventure.  When not engaged in battle, even the lowliest of persons is formal of speech.

This is not to say the work is free of moral ambiguity.  It’s admitted that the Crusades had generally bad results in spite of their lofty purposes, the Muslims have valid reasons for opposing the Crusaders, and King Richard’s selfish actions are shown to have negative consequences even while he remains the great hero of the story.  Parents reading this with their children may wish to discuss how easily religion can be used as an excuse for war, and the real history of the Crusades.

This book can also be found under the title “Winning His Spurs.”  It’s a good example of children’s literature of a bygone age, and with some caveats is suitable as a bedtime story even today.  As it’s in the public domain, there have been some inexpensive reprints in recent years.

Book Review: America In So Many Words

Book Review: America In So Many Words by Allen Metcalf & David K. Barnhart

America

American English is its own animal, with a vocabulary that marks it out from British English.  This volume traces American history through the words that have been important to or invented by Americans.  It’s set in roughly chronological order, from “canoe” (1555) through “gerrymander” (1812) to “millennium bug” (1998.)  The authors admit to a certain amount of fudging, with some words discussed in the year they were invented, others when they became common and some when their usage changed.

Most of the entries are entertaining, full of useful or exciting facts.  Some words’ origins may be very familiar to educated readers, while others are obscure.  The indexes in the back are both alphabetical and chronolgical for easier searching.  The illustrations are somewhat sparse.

This is a good book for both the American history student and the lover of words.

Book Review: Shanghai 1937

Book Review: Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen

Shanghai

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This is my 25th win!

This is the first English-language book specifically about the battle for Shanghai in 1937, which is considered by some to be the start of the Asian portion of World War Two.  It’s notable for having unusually comprehensive press coverage for the time.  This was because both the Chinese and Japanese were very careful to involve the foreign quarter of Shanghai in the fighting as little as possible.  Neither of them wanted the Western nations to side with the other due to attacks on their citizens.

What that means is that there’s a wealth of contemporary sources of information about the battle, even if it’s obscure now because of the larger conflicts that followed.  AFP reporter Peter Harmsen has woven this into a chronological retelling of the conflict.  There are accounts from both the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as the foreign observers.

A couple of points that stuck out to me:  having the large foreign quarter be neutral ground created tactical problems for both sides, and both sides frequently made tactical blunders that prolonged the three month battle.  Chiang Kai-shek does not come off at all well, demonstrating the qualities that would eventually result in his retreat to Taiwan.

There are excellent photos and maps, as well as the battle order.  There are copious footnotes, bibliography,and an index.  The prose is clear and understandable

This volume is a bit pricey at $32.95, but will be worth it to the World War II and military history buffs.  Everyone else should check it out at the library.

Book Review: They Talked to a Stranger

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

Not actually a picture from the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Weird Ones

Book Review: The Weird Ones by Frederik Pohl, Poul Anderson, Milton Lesser, Eando Binder, Mack Reynolds, Sam Sackett & L. Sprague de Camp

Weird

This is an anthology of 1950s science fiction published in 1962.  In the Fifties, SF became more “thinky” than in the pulp era, with an emphasis on the soft sciences like psychology and sociology.  While still rather staid in certain areas, which would be radically updated with the New Wave in the 1960s, Fifties SF came closer to literature.  This was the first book printing for these stories, which is why the cover calls them rare.

A preface by H.L. Gold discusses the need for neologism in science fiction, and how it compares to real world neologism.

“Small Lords” by Frederik Pohl has a first contact situation go horribly wrong.  Can the Earthmen somehow communicate their peaceful intentions before they all die?

“Sentiment, Inc.” by Poul Anderson concerns a scientist who’s developed a way to influence people’s emotions and is determined to use it to make the world a better place.  Even if it means what some people would consider treason…or worse.  Period sexism is evident in the use of women as “rewards” rather than as people with agency in their own right.

“Name Your Tiger” by Milton Lesser is about a Mars colony threatened by a killer that can become your worst fear.  The thinky bit here is what exactly constitutes a greatest fear.  The man who says “goldfish” is lying.

“Iron Man” by Eando Binder is even heavier on the psychological aspects.  A downtrodden man develops the delusion that he’s a robot.  A psychiatrist attempts to help him, but is it too late?

“The Hunted Ones” by Mack Reynolds is set in a future where humanity has decided that Zaroff was the hero of “The Most Dangerous Game.”  Their alien prey finds a way to remind them that “alien” doesn’t just mean odd-looking.

“Hail to the Chief” by Sam Sackett has a professor who believes that the government should be run by smart people discover that this is actually true of the American government.  Be careful what you wish for.

And “Impractical Joke” by L. Sprague de Camp involves an expedition to an alien planet disrupted by a bully’s trick on a mentally ill man.  A story where the joke isn’t one bit funny.

A good selection of stories, though rather dated.  Worth looking for.

Book Review: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle

Book Review: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle by Blaize & John Clement

Cradle

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This is an Advance Reading Copy, so minor changes may be made in the final product.

The cover is adorable, a kitten bottle-feeding in a cradle.  This scene does not appear in the book, or anything remotely close to it.  But aww…

This is the eighth book about Dixie Hemingway, a former sheriff’s deputy in the Florida Keys who is now employed as a pet sitter.  She runs into more than her fair share of murder and mayhem in these cozy mysteries.  Blaize Clement is now deceased, and her son John Clement wrote the book from her notes.

In this one, Dixie is out walking a dog when she finds an exotic bird lying by the road.  Nearby is a woman who’s just given birth, a woman who begs not to be taken to a doctor.  To make Dixie’s life even more complicated, one of her clients turns up dead, a friend disappears after leaving a cryptic voice message, and the handsome attorney Dixie likes makes a move to deepen their relationship.

I have not read the previous books in the series, but it’s a serviceable installment.  Many scenes seem designed to check in with characters from previous books, which gives the feel of comfortable shoes.  The ending could serve as a decent place to stop the series should the sales not do well or Mr. Clement run out of usable notes.

There’s some dubious handling of evidence towards the end; I’m pretty sure that as a former deputy sheriff, Dixie should know better, but it’s needed to set up the climax.

I liked this book, but the hardcover is scheduled to retail at $24.99.  I’d recommend trying out earlier books in the series to see if you’re enchanted enough to pay full price, or waiting for paperback.,

Book Review: Koko

Book Review: Koko by Peter Straub

Koko

Four Vietnam veterans, among the very few remaining from their old unit, meet at the Vietnam War Memorial’s dedication.  One of them has noticed a series of murders that indicate another member of their unit is alive and a serial killer.  He convinces the others to go searching for Koko.  What they don’t realize is that Koko is also searching for them.

This is a meandering thriller by the author of Ghost Story.  Much of the story is spent chasing false leads, and it’s not for nothing that the nominal leader of the group, Harry Beevers, is known as the “Lost Boss.”  Indeed, his bad decisions make much of the storyline possible.

There are some very good bits–I was moved by the scenes at the Memorial, and there’s some great descriptions of the various places the characters visit.  Most of the protagonists are broken one way or another, and their conflicting interpretations of events help keep up the interest.

TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse and sexualized violence.  Also, while the author is pretty even-handed, many of the characters indulge in period racism, sexism, homophobic slurs and transphobic slurs.  There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl subplot, which I know annoys some people.  Milwaukee residents may find the depiction of their city rather insulting.

Some of the characters from this book show up in a kind of sequel, which I am told is better.  If you’re a thriller fan, and you run across this used, get it, it’s worth one read at least.

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