Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Comic Book Review: Jacked

Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.

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

Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis.  His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months.  Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager.  Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function.  Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.

Jacked

Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product.  He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges.  Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again!  This is the good stuff.

But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica.  The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people.  Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets?  And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?

Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural.  According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics.  He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.

One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story.  Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous.  In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation.  (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)

This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting.  I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.

One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story.  Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.

Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk.  I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all.  Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.

The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality.  He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.

Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open

Book Review: The Jail Gates Are Open by David Hume

Cardby and Son is a detective firm comprised of ex-Chief Inspector Cardby (late of Scotland Yard) and his son Mick.   They’ve been engaged by a consortium of banks to discover where a recent flood of “slush”, counterfeit money, is coming from.  Nick realizes that one way of tracking down forgers is to consult an expert.  As it happens, a former forger of note is being released from Dartmoor Prison, and owes the Inspector a favor.

The Jail Gates are Open
Dust cover image snaffled from seller on Amazon.com

 

While on his way to pick up the soon to be ex-convict, Mick runs into (nearly literally) a man named Milsom Crosby.  Mr. Crosby is a wealthy man who interests himself in the rehabilitation of criminals, especially those who have committed particularly brutal or violent crimes.  He’s at Dartmoor to pick up Bonny Slater, a hard man who’d done time for assaulting a police officer.  Mick is intrigued, but has other business to attend to.

Back in London, Cardby and Son soon have a new client, a Mr. Carter.  It seems his son Kendrick had served a term for bank robbery and recently been released, but failed to come home.  His only communication has been a letter saying that he was under the care of…Milsom Crosby.  When the father tried to visit, he was told that Kendrick was on holiday in south France, but he smells a rat.

Shortly thereafter, a beautiful woman tries to engage the firm for a lengthy but lucrative embezzlement investigation in Barcelona.  The Cardbys point out that this would be better accomplished by a forensic accountant that speaks Spanish, and she is forced to reveal that she is Iris Crosby, and the person she’s speaking on behalf of is her father, Milsom Crosby!

This is a thriller, rather than a mystery, and it’s soon obvious that Milsom Crosby is behind the counterfeiting ring and sundry other crimes.  But this cunning criminal mastermind will stop at nothing to punish those that get in his way–can Cardby and Son save their beloved wife and mother, let alone themselves?

The Tired Business Man's Library logo. The hilt of the knife has "AC for Appleton-Century" and the skull's teeth spell out TBML.
The Tired Business Man’s Library logo. The hilt of the knife has “AC for Appleton-Century” and the skull’s teeth spell out TBML.

 

This 1935 novel is part of the Tired Business Man’s Library, published by D. Appleton-Century Company, and “David Hume” appears to be a pen name (certainly not the famous philosopher!)  There’s a prologue in which the author explains some of the British criminal slang that is used in the book for “authenticity.”

Mick Cardby is very much the protagonist of the story, a young clean-cut fellow who’s athletic, clever and formidable.  We don’t get any background on him except that he has worked with his father in the firm for some years to great success.  His father, as noted above, retired from Scotland Yard, and his old partner Chief Inspector Gribble (a hardened pessimist) is scheduled to join the firm on his own pending retirement.  Both of them, and the various other policemen who show up, are primarily extra hands when Mick is outnumbered or busy doing something that needs concentration.

Milsom Crosby is a clear forerunner of the Bond villain–wealthy, powerful, a veneer of respectability, but a tendency to gloat and not quite as clever as he thinks.  Genre-savvy readers will see his repeatedly taking the choice that will least accomplish the goal of deterring the Cardbys and shake their heads.

As is sadly common in adventure fiction of the period,  women’s roles are limited.  Mrs. Cardby is taken hostage, rescued and otherwise not in the story at all (she has zero knowledge of or interest in her husband and son’s business other than fretting).  An engraver’s pretty daughter, taken hostage to ensure his cooperation with the counterfeiters, is only marginally more useful and mostly serves as a mild romantic interest for Mick.

And then there’s Iris Crosby, who tries to act the femme fatale but is easily thwarted by locking her in a room.  There’s a couple of nasty twists involving her in the final chapter, just so Mick can drive home how completely she’s failed.

Mick is pretty callous about usng violence, and sheds not a tear for a man he sends to his death (even cutting a deal with his murderer later on!)  He’s also willing to use a veiled homophobic slur, Mr. Crosby being quick to take offense at it being directed at him.

This book doesn’t seem to ever have been reprinted, so your chances of finding it outside of hole-in-the-wall used bookstores are slim.  Still, it’s a fun read suitable for unwinding after a long day at work.

Movie Review: Four Frightened People (1934)

Movie Review: Four Frightened People (1934)

The last of the Cecil B. DeMille movies in the set I have, it’s very different from the others, being set in the present day, and having a relatively small cast.

Four Frightened People

The story opens on a passenger ship that has become infested with bubonic plague.   The crew is trying to keep this from the passengers, but ace reporter Stewart Corder recognizes the symptoms.  He convinces the people he’s with at the time, a British government official’s wife, Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland) and a chemist with a specialty in rubber, Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall), to secretly abandon the ship on a native’s boat.  They are spotted by prim Chicago geography teacher Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert) who screams at the sight, and are forced to kidnap her to keep her quiet.

I should note that the version I watched is a trimmed-down one (maybe the only version still in existence) so there may have been some more characters aboard the ship (described as a cultural melting pot) that were cut from this movie.

When they land in Malaysia (actually shot on location in Hawaii), Mrs. Mardick uses her tenuous grasp of Malayan languages and learns that the local village is suffering from a cholera outbreak.  Fortunately for the castaways, one of the locals is a man named Montague (Leo Carillo.)  He’s quite a character, with a decent grasp of English.  The story kind of lampshades the fact that Carillo doesn’t look at all like a Malayan by having Montague believe that he is, in fact, a white man.  He even wears a tie, “Best English make!”

Montague agrees to guide the four to the nearest seaport…and promptly gets them all lost.   We also start to see more of the characters’ personalities.  Corder is a boastful, self-important man who clearly believes he’s the male lead of any situation he finds himself in, and sometimes acts recklessly.  Ainger is a bitter, sarcastic fellow.  Both of them feel no interest in the repressed, timid Jones, and are a bit intimidated by the heavyset and upbeat Mrs. Mardick.

Eventually, the group is captured by a hostile tribe, and are forced to leave one of them behind as a hostage.  This turns out to be Mrs. Mardick, since her layer of fat proves she is the highest-ranking one.  Montague fails to ask directions from the tribe, as that would be admitting he’s not superior to them!

Things get worse as another encounter with a local tribe goes disastrously and Montague is slain.   On the other hand, Jones has lost her glasses, hairpins and dowdy clothes, revealing that she is in fact Claudette Colbert, and the men have become interested in her.  She’s also discovered her inner spitfire.

Corder, in keeping with his male lead personality, thinks Jones will go for him, but she actually turns out to have a thing for Ainger, whose bitterness came from an unhappy marriage.  Problem is, he’s still married, despite returning Jones’ feelings.

By the end, they have learned to live in the jungle, and for Ainger and Jones it’s something of a shame that they must return to their repressed normal lives.  But that’s not quite the end of the story.

This movie was made just as the Hays Code was coming in,  so there’s quite a bit of spicy material.  Jones winds up wearing some pretty skimpy outfits, and there’s a scene where she’s apparently naked in a waterfall.  (Some shots make it look like Claudette Colbert was actually wearing a very thin slip, it’s deliberately blurry.)  Lots of innuendo in the dialogue, and the topics of family planning and divorce are brought up.

The racism is likely to be problematic for modern viewers; other than Montague, the Malayans are depicted as primitive savages, and Montague considers himself superior because he’s “white.”

The roles for the women are interesting; Mrs. Mardick is the most level-headed of the group, and never really loses her dignity, despite looking faintly ridiculous in her formal wear and carrying around a lapdog.  She even turns her captivity into an opportunity to bring family planning to the tribe, much to the delight of the women there, and the consternation of the chief.

Jones, on the other hand, goes from a timid mouse of a woman to someone who expresses her feelings, is unafraid to have opinions and dresses as she pleases.   We learn that she was emotionally abused by her relatives, who never let her forget that she owed them for taking her in.  A defining moment is when she realizes she actually sees better without her glasses–apparently she’d never had her prescription updated after her relatives complained about the expense of getting her spectacles in the first place.

Ainger also grows in the jungle, his sarcasm mellowing into philosophy.   When he gets home, his (much older looking) wife belittles him, along with his live-in mother in law.  He finds the backbone to divorce them.  Corder, on the other hand, shrinks a bit in the jungle.  He’s used to being the center of attention, headline grabber and radio personality.  Without an appreciative audience and constant praise, he’s lost.  At the end, we hear him giving a speech about his adventures, boastfully rearranging events to make himself sound better.

This is not a particularly good movie,  especially by DeMille standards.  But it has fun bits, and Claudette Colbert in skimpy outfits.  It’ll be well worth popping some corn and enjoying with your friends.

 

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