Book Review: Nine Lessons

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

A churchyard in a village not too far from Cambridge in England has one too many bodies in its graves.  The victim, a respected organist, was entombed alive, and odd details about the scene make it clear that this was murder most foul.  Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

Nine Lessons

One of the clues brings DCI Penrose to Cambridge itself, where the victim was a student at King’s College before World War One.  As it happens, Penrose’s good friend, mystery writer Josephine Tey is in town, house-sitting for her very good friend Marta.  The days are turning chill as Armistice Day approaches, but there’s something else that is bringing fear to the university town–a series of sexual assaults on young women.

This is the seventh in a series of mystery books starring a fictionalized version of author Josephine Tey.  For starters, in the books this is her actual name, rather than being a nom de plume  for Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952).  The real author is perhaps best remembered for her 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a hospitalized police detective amuses himself by investigating the supposed murder by Richard III of his nephews.  But this story is set in approximately 1937, as it’s mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock is loosely adapting one of Tey’s books into a movie.

But Mr. Hitchcock is only mentioned; the primary literary influence here is M.R. James, once Dean of King’s College, and famous for his chilling ghost stories.  The murderer seems to be taking inspiration from those stories, and all the victims were once in the King’s College Choir (which sings the Nine Lessons and Carols from whence the title derives.)

The subtitle on the cover is “some wounds never heal”; Inspector Penrose and some of the other characters are still carrying the scars from the War, while others are dealing with more personal wounds.  Another theme of the book is kindness, given, withheld, found in unusual places and the devastating effects if kindness is taken away.

An important subplot is the romantic relationship between Inspector Penrose and his current (and former) lover Bridget.  She’s been keeping a large secret from him that Marta (and thus Josephine) have learned about.  Keeping this secret is a betrayal, but it’s not theirs to tell.

There’s a lot of glowing description of Cambridge’s architecture.  I’ve only been there one day many years ago, so cannot speak to the accuracy of the descriptions, but the author lives there so presumably knows what she’s talking about.  The author deliberately moved some 1970s events into the 1930s to fit them into this novel.

The murder mystery part of the book wraps up several chapters before the end, allowing the other plotlines to take the foreground.  The ending is bittersweet at best; criminals have been found and taken off the streets, but the wounds they caused remain.  (Content warning: rape, suicide.)

Some bits made me cry, but then I’m the sentimental sort.  Recommended to fans of historical mysteries.

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

Here’s a video of the King’s College Choir and the Nine Lessons:

 

 

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America by Rex Bowman & Carlos Santos

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

Rot Riot and Rebellion

If I told you about a school where the students constantly engaged in partying, drunkenness and extramarital sex;  where the students scorned to study and disrespected the teachers, a campus rife with violence that boiled over into riots that resulted at least once in murder, what school would you think I was talking about?   If you guessed the University of Virginia from 1825 to 1846, you would be correct.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville was the first secular college in the young United States.  All previous schools of higher learning had been sponsored by one denomination or another, and had mandatory religious services.   Thomas Jefferson had a vision for a school that people of all religions and none could attend.  He also had some innovative ideas about the power structure such an university might have.  This got him a lot of opposition, so it was only in his eighties that the school was finally built.

Sadly, the first few classes of students failed to live up to Mr. Jefferson’s expectations; at one point he broke into tears in public, which brought about a short-lived attempt to do better by the pupils.  They were a rowdy bunch who gambled and drank and abused slaves; and were so jealous of their honor that any real or imagined slight erupted into violence.  One student tried to blow up a professor with an improvised bomb–twice!  And quite a few of them were prominent in the Confederate Army; sadly, none are mentioned as joining the Union.

There are many colorful stories of the early days, including the short college career of Edgar Allan Poe.  Since this is a University of Virginia publication, it comes with proper end notes, bibliography and index.  There are some black and white pictures in the middle, mostly portraits as very few of the important people involved lived to the age of photography.

This is a very enjoyable book that I would recommend to Virginians (especially alumni of the college), fans of Thomas Jefferson, and college students who are tired of being told how much worse their generation is compared to those of bygone days.

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