Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012

Magazine Review: Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012 edited by Tyree Campbell

If you want to stand out in the crowded field of speculative fiction, one of the ways is “genre-blending,” taking two different popular genres and splicing them together.  For example, horror and romance to create the vampire love stories so immensely popular in recent times.  This twice-yearly magazine blends science fiction and crime fiction.

Cosmic Crime Stories July 2012

“Suttee” by Tyree Campbell leads this issue off.    (When you’re the editor you can decide what order the stories go in.)  Sweeney is a smuggler whose husband was recently killed.   She’s going on one last run, but what’s her end game?  Much of the story is her verbal sparring with an authority figure who doesn’t understand her motivation.

“The Price of Selfishness” by Robert Collins is set on the frontier of space, as a merchant’s prank results in murder.  Captain Jason Ayers must investigate the matter, and determine what sort of justice the alien perpetrator will face.  The local law enforcement shoves the matter off on him, and then doesn’t like the result.

“Perfect Vengeance” by Kellee Kranendonk takes place in a society where the aged are despised.  Shae was one of the few space captains left over forty; until her crew mutinied, shooting her and stranding her and her younger lover on a supposedly barren planet.  Said planet is not nearly as deserted as it appeared, and the locals’ society has an important difference that allows Shae a kind of revenge.  This story suffered badly from not having the background better explained.

“All Tomorrow’s Suckers: Robert Bloch’s Speculative Crimes” by Daniel R. Robichaud.   This short article looks at some of the Psycho author’s more speculative crime fiction, including the series about Lefty Feep, a not quite successful con artist whose schemes always involved science fiction or fantasy gimmicks.

“The Faithless, the Tentacled and the Light” by Mary E. Lowd concerns Nicole Merison, captain of the Hypercube and a rescue mission the government asks her to undertake.  The mission evokes complex emotions, as the captured person is her ex-friend who got her fired from a dream job.  Turns out Cora misinterpreted an important detail of alien biology/technology, so she may deserve to stay….

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” by Wayne Carey stars an attorney named Murph, who is called in to defend his cousin Tom Finnegan from charges he carelessly activated an experimental device that destroyed the space station he was on and killed dozens of people.  Murph isn’t really that good of a lawyer, having only won one case before via applied bribery.  That won’t work here, and it gets worse when he discovers that a) Tom’s employers have bailed on the scientist, leaving him holding the bad, and b) local laws requite the attorney to suffer the same penalty as his client.  The locals still have the death penalty for murder.   The fun is watching Murph dig himself out of this hole and win the case mostly honestly.  It feels good, but remember the title.

“Rarified Air: Big City Policing, Year 3000” by Marilyn K. Martin is a police procedural.  In the overcrowded future, only the wealthy can afford to live in buildings high enough to see the sky.  They’re somewhat insulated from law enforcement by the politics of the day, and when a multiple widow reports that her latest husband has gone missing, the cops must tread lightly.

There are a few house ads for Sam’s Dot Publishing and a couple of illustrations by Denny Marshall which don’t go with specific stories.

The Wayne Carey story is the best of the lot, which are mostly middling good.  This magazine might be worth looking up if you like the intersection of SF and crime.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

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