Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Book Review: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a minister can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2 edited by Anthony Tollin

As noted in my review of the first volume, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was a long-running character who had three distinct phases.  These reprint volumes primarily cover his pulp magazine career.  The stories were written under the house name “Nick Carter,” even though they weren’t in first person.

Nick Carter, Volume Two

“Whispers of Death” by John Chambliss leads off the volume.  A Presidential Commission has met to decide if New York should have a federally-run electric power distribution system, ala the Tennessee Valley Authority, (still new in 1935 when the story was written.)  They’ve made their secret decision and sent it off to Washington so that the President can announce it in four days’ time.  But Mr. Ballard, the head of the commission, suspects something has gone wrong, and calls Nick Carter in for a consultation.  By the time Nick arrives, Ballard has been murdered!

The government orders Nick to keep this murder a secret, even from the police, so that the public won’t panic about what this means for the power industry.  This hampers his investigation considerably, although it’s clear that whoever the murderer is, Ballard knew them and it is almost certainly something to do with the commission’s decision.  And therefore the other members of the commission are the main suspects!

Nick Carter and his closest associates soon discover they’re up against a “whisper gang” that uses cleverly planted rumors to manipulate markets.  But who’s behind the gang?  They’ll need to do a lot of shooting, fist-fighting, escaping from death traps and, oh yeah, actual detective work to figure it out.

Of note is that the writer apparently was not aware of FDR’s physical limitations (or, since the President is never named, we are in an alternate universe) as he has him walking around freely.

There’s a touch of period ethnic stereotyping and sexism (it’s mentioned a couple of times how surprising it is that Nick’s female assistant Roxy is a competent operative.)

“Trail of the Scorpion” is by Thomas Calvert McClary, who also wrote “The Impossible Theft” in the first volume (and which is referenced in this story.)  Nick Carter receives a visitor who’s tattooed in a code known only to himself and one other person (who is not the person with the tattoo.)  A messenger will soon arrive beating a ring engraved with a scorpion, and the fate of far Iraghan hangs in the balance.

The identity of the story’s villain is quickly revealed, an usurper named McClelland, but the mystery is where that man hid the gold he looted from Iraghan’s treasury before he was expelled from that country.  Mixed up in this somehow is a con artist named Winnie the Weeper.  But is she working for McClelland, against him, or just for herself?

Nick gets into a lot of narrow scrapes in this one, having his guns and tools stolen more than once, and taking more head trauma than could possibly be good for him.  The trail takes him to Valdosta, Georgia and from  there deep into the Everglades.

There’s a lot of outdated ethnic stereotyping in this one, as McClelland is an equal-opportunity employer–to the point that one of the minor characters is known as “the Caucasian.”  There’s also some torture by the bad guys.

Another note for both these stories is that Nick Carter doesn’t get paid for either of these adventures, nor does he ever discuss his finances.

“The Voice of Crime”, an episode of the radio show version written by Walter B. Gibson (The Shadow) and Edward Gruskin, on the other hand, has Nick hurting for cash.  Enough so that when a safecracker known as “Vox” offers a $10,000 reward if Nick Carter can capture him, Nick is all too willing to take the too clever for his own good criminal as a client.  One gets the feeling that Nick really enjoys letting Vox think he’s outsmarted the master detective before puncturing his balloon.

“The Shadow Calling Nick Carter” is also by Walter B. Gibson with artist Charles Coll, an adaptation of the radio episode just mentioned in comic book form to turn it into a crossover with the Shadow.  It’s very slight, but a rare crossover by one of the original writers of the Shadow character.

Both of the magazine stories are very exciting, though the second one may have too many racist undertones for some readers.  Recommended for pulp fans.

Book Review: Seeds for Change

Book Review: Seeds for Change by Marly Cornell

This is a biography of Surinder “Suri” and Edda (nee Jeglinsky) Sehgal, the founders of the Sehgal Foundation.  That foundation helps rural villages in India achieve clean water, improved agriculture, better education and more honest government, as well as funding conservation and ecological efforts around the world.

Seeds for Change

Both of them were refugees as children, Suri when his family wound up on the wrong side of the border during the partition of Pakistan and India, and Edda when her home in Silesia was about to be overrun by the Soviet Army during the end of World War Two (and then was attached to Poland in the post-war process.)

Suri grew up to become a crop scientist, specializing in hybrid corn, and came to America to pursue his graduate studies.  Edda was invited to the U.S. to serve as the au pair for the Henry Kissinger family.  They met and fell in love.  Suri got a job with Pioneer, creating their first international research station in Jamaica, and the couple got married.

They settled down in Iowa and raised a family, and with a combination of hard work, diplomacy and good management  skills, Suri rose to eventually become the president of Pioneer’s overseas operations.  Unfortunately, there was a management change at the company, and the new CEO felt uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of Pioneer at the time.

According to this book the new management of Pioneer fired Suri and attempted to frame him for stealing trade secrets, as well as gutting a joint venture in India that Mr. Sehgal had an independent interest in.   (A book from the perspective of the Pioneer management  might tell the story differently.)  The ensuing lawsuits were settled in Suri’s favor, and the independent company he rebuilt was successful enough to create the Foundation.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  Suri and Edda’s life experiences are interesting and shed light on areas not often brought to the attention of most Americans.   Edda is very much depicted as Suri’s partner who he could not have succeeded without.    If the text sometimes seems overly flattering, this is understandable due to it being written specifically to promote the Sehgal Foundation.

I found  the writing style a little flat.  A discussion of the children’s part-time jobs is given the same tonal feel as Suri’s trek  across India as a shoeless refugee  to find a relative whose location he only knows by a general region, which could use a bit more emotional weight.

There are genealogical charts at the beginning of the book (there are a lot of relatives that come in and out of the story) and a color photograph section in the middle.  Citations are done in footnotes, and there is no index.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Sehgal Foundation, so that might influence your decision whether or not to purchase.

I would especially recommend this books to readers with an interest in immigrant stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author for the purpose of undertaking this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.

This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival.  The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness.  Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.

Water~Stone Review #18

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of.  One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry.  I don’t have a good answer for that.   “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story.  “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.

The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May.  He talks about how he structured his first book.

From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison.  It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making.  “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses.  It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.

The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”.  An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further.  They may be beaten down, but not permanently.  “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.

The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out.  There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece.  It’s so-so.

There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me.  The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.

This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did.  I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.

 

Book Review: Air Service Boys over the Rhine

Book Review: Air Service Boys Over the Rhine by Charles Amory Beach

In 1916, America was still officially neutral in the matter of the Great War.  While many Americans didn’t much like the way Germany was attacking its neighbors, the government felt that it was really none of our business.   Still, some Americans felt compelled to come to France to aid the valiant French in the defense of their homeland.  Some of them were trained pilots, or swiftly educated as such, and became the Escadrille Américaine; after a formal German protest, they were renamed the Lafayette Escadrille after the French soldier who’d helped out the Americans during their revolution.  The “Air Service Boys” series celebrates these young heroes.

Air Service Boys Over the Rhine
Frontispiece

In this, the third book of the series, Tom Raymond and Jack Parmley, two of the American pilots, are having a relatively slow week when the mail arrives, letting Tom know that his inventor father is soon to arrive in Paris.  Some time passes as missions are flown, but no further message comes from Mr. Raymond.   The boys decide to take their next leave in Paris, to see if the inventor has simply not had his mail delivered.

The boys arrive just in time for a new example of German “frightfulness” (deliberately brutal attacks that have little military value, designed to terrorize and demoralize the enemy public.)  The Germans are somehow dropping bombs on random parts of Paris, despite no aircraft in the sky, and no artillery close enough to send shells.  Deuced bad luck for our lads when they finally track Tom’s father down, only to learn that his building is one of the bomb targets.  No body found, but no word of survival either.

Eventually, the secret of the Big Bertha guns is revealed, and the boys join the strike force to take them out.  Once that’s done, it’s time to strike back against the perfidious enemy.  A long range mission over the Rhine brings our lads to bomb a German munitions factory.  They’re forced down behind enemy lines, and find their escape aided by the most obvious person.

This is very much a children’s book, with many terms explained in the simplest fashion.   There isn’t much in the way of characterization–Jack is slightly more impulsive than Tom, and is sweet on a girl named Bessie.   Bessie and her mother barely appear, just long enough to let us know they are contributing by working for the Red Cross, then getting kidnapped by German spies offstage.  (And rescued offstage as well.)  A German spy appears just enough to let us know the enemy is still treacherous–our heroes never directly interact with him.

The dialogue is stilted, and the combat scenes oddly lifeless (though blood and death appear often enough, and Jack is hospitalized twice.)   The author even halts the action for a chapter to tell us what happened in the first two books in some detail.  There’s quite a bit of period ethnic prejudice against Germans, and frequent use of the slurs “Boche” and “Hun.”

If you are famished for tales of the Lafayette Escadrille, I see there is a collected edition of four books in this series available on Kindle for a reasonable price.  I really can’t recommend this book on its own.

And now, another highly fictionalized version of the Escadrille:

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm

Book Review: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

The small, isolated Kingdom of Sessalie is about to celebrate a wedding.   Princess Anja is about to marry the High Prince of Devall, which is not only politically advantageous, but a love match.  But on the eve of the wedding, Anja goes missing.

To Ride Hell's Chasm

It falls to the leader of the Highguard,  silver-haired Taskin, and the captain of the lower city garrison, the “desert-bred” Mykkael, to find the princess, and discover the motives of those that would prevent the marriage.

This is a standalone novel by Janny Wurts, author of the massive The Wars of Light and Shadow.  She is also the cover artist, which at least means that the cover is appropriate to the story.

Mykkael, as it turns out, is vastly overqualified for his position under normal circumstances, despite a bum knee and deep manpain from what he considers his greatest failure.    In this crisis situation, however, he may be just slightly underqualified.   It’s kind of a given that if a place with an ominous name is mentioned, that no one has survived a trip through, that our hero will have to go there.  And given that place name is in the title?

Mykkael faces considerable ethnic prejudice due to his appearance, even though he was not raised in that culture, and the enemies of Sessalie take full advantage of this to discredit his warnings, even spreading misinformation that the defenses against evil magic he recommends will strengthen the demons.  There’s also the persistent mispronunciation of his name by nobility, and it becomes a point of characterization who drops the mispronunciation and when.

The main female character, Anja, comes off well, despite the plot not exactly working in her favor.  A trek through insanely dangerous wilderness while pursued by monsters is not what she was trained for.  If she has a difficult personality at times, it comes across as an understandable reaction.

One thing that struck me as I was reading through was that a major character didn’t seem to have a name.  Eventually, I realized that no one in that character’s category was ever actually named, which may have been meant as foreshadowing.

There’s quite a lot of business involving horses, as several (non-magical) horses become important characters later in the book and much attention is given to their care and injuries.  The ride through Hell’s Chasm, once if finally happens, is grueling and exhausted this reader.

The story is wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly in the final chapter.  It feels like the author really wanted to make sure the book had a seriously final ending so it wouldn’t turn into a trilogy or series.

There are several maps at the beginning, a glossary, an appendix explaining how demons work in the setting, and a brief biography of the author.

Trigger warning:  Taskin is forced by politics to lash Mykkael at one point, making sure to draw blood.  In general, a lot of time is taken describing Mykkael and other people’s wounds.

This is a good starting place if you have been curious about Ms. Wurts’ work, but reluctant to start a long series.

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