Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders

Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie

Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea.  A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders.  In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane.  She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two.  But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.

The Tuesday Club Murders

Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927.  The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book.  The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.”  Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”

The last story, “Death by Drowning” has  Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.

Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies.  Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.)  Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.

Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery.  Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices.   On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous.  There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.

While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.

Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Suppose for a moment that you had access to a device that would create an exact duplicate of any object placed inside.  What would you do with it?  Solve world hunger?  Commit massive art fraud?  Resolve your sexual attraction to your  best friend’s wife?  Yeah, that last one is the possibility we’re exploring here.

Four Sided Triangle

This 1949 novel is narrated by Dr. Harvey, one of the last old-fashioned country doctors in the village of Howdean.  He’s very specifically not possessed of a full scientific education, and would never pass muster in today’s technically-oriented medical profession (indeed, he’s already having trouble keeping up when he’s in his forties!)   But he is bright enough to realize that young Bill Leggett is a child prodigy.

Dr. Harvey acts as a mentor to the young genius as much as he can, and when Bill’s abusive and alcoholic father dies, gets himself appointed Bill’s guardian.  He sponsors Bill’s further education, and secures the lad a scholarship to Cambridge.  At university, Bill meets and becomes friends with Robin Heath, who as it turns out is the son of the  lord of the shire Howdean is located in.  Robin is much more conventional in his thinking than Bill, and not nearly as brilliant, but is a good steady problem-solver who complements Bill’s impatience well.

With a loan from Rob’s father, the two young men start a research laboratory (“the Dump”) together on the outskirts of Howdean.  While they are pursuing their esoteric goals, Dr. Harvey is called upon to aid a young woman who’s taken a drug overdose.  This is Lena, a beautiful (of course) lass with an artistic bent, a fervor for creation, and no noticeable artistic or musical spark.  She can play other people’s compositions competently, and is good at art and color theory, but whenever she tries to create something new, the result is a fiasco.  Thus her attempt at suicide.

Dr. Harvey realizes that Lena needs a completely new endeavor to distract her from fatalistic thoughts, and convinces Bill and Rob to take her on as a sort of housekeeper and general assistant.  This works swimmingly.  The young men both take a fancy to Lena, Bill’s soaring imagination and Rob’s common sense working together to restore her love of life, and her bright spirit (and a spot of much-needed cash) allowing the Reproducer to become functional.

Things go well for a while, with the Reproducer bringing the young scientists renown and steady paychecks.  Dr. Harvey’s share of the enterprise even allows him to take early retirement from active medical practice.  But just as Bill is ready to propose to Lena, Lena proposes to Rob, and the latter two get married.

Bill does not take this well, but he has a plan.  He’s been working on a way to allow the Reproducer to duplicate living beings.  If there were another Lena, then she could marry him and everything would be hunky-dory!  Yeah.  The obvious objections are raised, but the somewhat selfless Lena becomes convinced that her feelings of friendship for Bill could deepen into love given time.

So it is that a second Lena is created, named Dorothy, and marries Bill.  Unfortunately, it turns out that Dorothy is too identical to Lena, and is unable to turn off her love for Rob, the man she remembers as her husband.  She cares deeply for Bill, but the stress of pretending to love him is driving her to despair.

In a twist of fate, Bill blows himself and the Reproducer up with an attempt at creating a nuclear power plant, being just a little too impatient for Rob to return with a safety device.  This leaves Dorothy free to reveal her true feelings, and Lena wants to share Rob with her as they have identical emotions.  Unfortunately, Rob is very conventional when it comes to monogamy, and nixes the idea.

Sometime later, there is another accident, leaving one of the women dead and the other amnesiac, but which is which?  Rob cannot love Dorothy, no matter how identical to Lena she might be.  Dr. Harvey discovers a clue in Bill’s papers that should allow them to settle the matter one way or the other….

The good:  Since the plot depends heavily on the personalities of the people involved, the characterization is much more in-depth than was common for science fiction novels of the time.  The author makes it believable that the characters make decisions believing they will make things better, but instead make them worse.

Bill, as a survivor of childhood abuse, physical, emotional and (all but said outright) sexual, has difficulties forming normal social relationships.  When he finds the one woman he wants to be with forever unavailable, it is unimaginable to him to find another love.  This one was so hard to work up to!  His impatience and willingness to overlook important social cues also play a large part in the tragedy.

Lena had a stage as a feral child, and has learned to make her own decisions, hide her feelings, and not ask for nor expect help.  But she’s also very tender-hearted towards others, and willing to make any sacrifice for those she loves.  Ditto for Dot.

Rob is very much the conventional English gentleman, which is great as long as there are conventional English gentleman things that need doing.  He’s reliable and steady, and good husband material.  But if there’s an ethical dilemma where his code of honor gives contradictory results, or it’s an unprecedented situation, Rob is at a total loss.

Dr. Harvey’s lack of science smarts means that the author can get away with never having to fully explain how the Reproducer actually works; just describing the end product, without having to worry about plausibility.

Not so good:  Period sexism–it’s mentioned more than once that women just aren’t interested in science (always excepting Madame Curie), and Dr. Harvey believes that Lena’s creative impulse would be best put to use in making a family (i.e. children) and she comes to believe the same.

Also, some science fiction cliches:  There’s only ever one Reproducer; Bill and Rob never patent it nor do they seem to publish any work explaining the principles behind it–one part is even revealed after the fact to be a “black box” that Bill installed without telling Rob how it worked or how to fix it.  Yet they are able to make a decent living from renting out the use of the Reproducer without anyone trying to steal their work or having the government confiscate it or demand proof of concept.

And some readers are just not going to like the ending, telling you now.

Still, if tragic romance with a science fiction twist is your thing, I think this one is well worth seeking out.

The edition I read was the 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction reprint, which was done using the same presses as their monthly magazine.  It’s unabridged, so has small type to fit it in the available page count, and the cover is glossy  but flimsy.  You might be able to find a paperback edition in better shape.

The novel was also turned into a 1953 movie by Hammer Studios, a precursor to the full-fledged horror films they were soon to move into.  It simplified the ending somewhat, making it less ambiguous.  Here’s a clip:

Manga Review: Nisekoi

Manga Review: Nisekoi by Naoshi Komi

Raku Ichijo is a mild-mannered teenager who just happens to be the heir-apparent to the Shuei-Gumi Yakuza clan.  He wants nothing to do with this, intending to become a strait-laced civil servant when he grows up.  Raku also dreams of romance.  He has a lock pendant from ten years ago, that he promised to keep so a girl could unlock it with her key and they would get married.  Unfortunately, he no longer remembers the girl’s name or appearance.  But he wouldn’t mind if she was his current crush, Kosaki Onodera, who is sweet and shy.

Nisekoi Volume 1

However, another girl comes crashing into Raku’s life, knee to face first.  She’s Chitoge Kirisaki, a boisterous, half-American girl who’s very pretty and athletic, but sorely lacking in proper deportment.  Raku and Chitoge get on like mongoose and viper, each seeing the other as the source of problems.  (Most notably, Chitoge accidentally caused Raku’s pendant to go missing.)  Over the next couple of weeks, being constantly thrown together allows them to learn each other’s bad points and some of their good, but at last it looks like they’ve reached a truce.

It’s at this point that Raku’s father announces that in order to make a truce with the new criminal organization in the city, the Beehive Gang, Raku must enter into a false relationship (the nisekoi of the title) with the daughter of that gang’s leader.  Who is, of course, Chitoge.  In order to keep peace between the gangs, they must pretend to be lovey-dovey, while in reality they drive each other up the wall!

Legend has it that Komi’s previous series, Double Arts, was innovative and took some creative risks, but struggled to find an audience and was cut short.  So he deliberately made this romantic comedy series as cliched as possible, but as well-written as he could manage to capture sales and series longevity.  And yes, many elements of the series are very predictable.  Of course Onodera secretly has a crush on Raku she’s too shy to ever act on.   Of course Raku and Chitoge find themselves growing closer even as they valiantly struggle against such feelings.  Of course new wacky characters appear to cause more complications in their lives as the circumstances force them into sitcom antics.

Most of the time, it’s done quite well, and is enjoyably readable.  There’s just enough of a twist at times to keep it from being completely obvious, and most of the characters are kind of likable when they aren’t being sitcom stupid.

Like many Shounen Jump series, there was a long period in the middle where the manga seemed to be spinning its wheels, doing fun stories, but no real plot advancement.  Then about a year real time before the series ended, Komi started resolving plot points one after another, devoting arcs to clearing away the complications that prevented the central relationship from advancing.  The ending, while also in its way cliched, was very satisfying.

There’s also an anime adaptation of the early part of the manga.

I have the first volume to hand.  After the initial set-up, Raku and Chitoge are forced to go on their first (fake) date, which is something of a disaster, especially when Onodera stumbles on them together, and is convinced the relationship is real.  There’s also the reveal that Onodera wears a key pendant that looks like it might fit Raku’s lock pendant.  Could she be the promise girl?

This is followed by the entire school finding out about the (fake) relationship, so Raku and Chitoge can’t even let their guard down there.  The final chapter in the volume reveals that neither Chitoge nor Onodera can cook, good thing Raku can!  The main menace in this volume is Claude, security chief for the Beehive gang.  He’s pretty sure the relationship is fake, and keeps spying on the couple.  (He fades into the background a bit in later volumes when his teen protege Tsugumi is introduced as Chitoge’s bodyguard.)

The series is fanservice-light, with slapstick violence, so should be suitable for junior high readers up.  Recommended primarily for teens, as older readers may find all the cliches a bit much.

Manga Review: Orange the Complete Collection 1

Manga Review: Orange the Complete Collection 1 by Ichigo Takano

If you could send a letter to yourself ten years in the past, what would you say?  “Life will get better after high school”?  “Don’t drink and drive”?  “Here are the winning lottery numbers for [date]”?  On the first day of her junior year of high school, Naho Takamiya receives a letter that purports to be from herself ten years from “now.”  It correctly predicts a series of events, including that a new boy from Tokyo, Kakeru, will be joining her group of friends.  Then it gets to the reason the letter was sent.

One of Naho’s friends won’t survive the year.

Orange the Complete Collection 1

This is a shoujo (girls’) romance manga with a touch of melancholy.  Naho is a motherly girl who cares deeply about her friends, but she’s also quite timid and a bit of a doormat.  Even though she knows her future self is giving good advice, Naho hesitates to stand up for herself or tell people how she really feels, and several opportunities to influence events slip through her fingers.

There is also a bit of a love triangle involved.  Kakeru Naruse clearly has feelings for Naho that deepen over time, but he’s hurting inside and distances himself from others–he is considering suicide.  Hiroto Suwa also has feelings for Naho, but considers his friendship with Kakeru important enough to set those aside to help the couple get together.

The other characters are less developed in this first volume (which contains volumes 1-3 of the Japanese version.)  Azusa Murasaka is a bit loud and flashy; Takako Chino is more elegant but has a short temper; and Saku Hagita looks gloomy and serious, but has a gift for saying funny things.

The story is set in Matsumoto, a small city in the mountainous area of Nagano Prefecture.  Every so often there’s some nice art of the local scenery, but most panels skip backgrounds.  Otherwise, the art is decent and conveys the action and emotions well.  The location also plays into the motivation of “mean girl” Ueda, who tries to start a romance with Kakeru based on the fact that they’re both from big city Tokyo, not like the provincial locals.

After a while, we do get glimpses of future Naho and her surviving friends, as the events that lead to the letter being sent back slowly unfold.  There’s some discussion of how time travel might work–will changing the past overwrite the previous events entirely, or does it simply create a new timeline starting from the deviation point?  Naho’s letter becomes less useful as she does start making decisions that vary from the original; by the end of this volume, Naho has decided not to rely on it anymore.  This decision is helped along by plot twists at the end of Japanese volumes 2 & 3, which genre-savvy readers will see coming.

The story does deal with suicide and its effects on the survivors, the regret and guilt it causes.  It’s made clear that there’s no magic bullet for suicide prevention.  The support and attention of friends does help, but they can’t always be there, and it is clear that they might still fail.  (And of course, Naho can’t just tell responsible adults what she knows without revealing her source.)

An anime adaptation is running as of this writing, and you can probably find it on a streaming service.

Recommended for teens who enjoy a touch of science fiction in with their melancholy romance, and are able to handle the theme of suicide.

 

Book Review: Danger in the Dark

Book Review: Danger in the Dark by L. Ron Hubbard

Yes, it’s another of those L. Ron Hubbard reprints; thanks, discount bin!

This time, we have three fantasy stories, none of which have anything to do with the cover.  (It’s actually illustrating “Returned from Hell” by Steve Fisher.)

Danger in the Dark

“Danger in the Dark” is set in the Mariana Islands east of the Philippines.  Billy Newman was suckered into buying an island with a copra plantation.  Unfortunately, a series of disasters, including a smallpox plague, have come to Kaisan Isle, something the natives ascribe to the evil spirit Tadamona.  Billy naturally spurns this explanation as the foolish superstition it would normally be.  But this time, Tadamona is real, and it has a bone to pick with the arrogant white man….

While it’s a neat twist on the “superior white dude overcomes native superstition” plotline, it’s still pretty darn ethnocentric–only Billy and the half-white girl Christina are willing to do anything to thwart Tadamona, while the natives have decided to surrender completely to their unseen nemesis.  And the ending restores the “natural” superiority of white people.

“The Room” takes place somewhere in rural America.  Uncle Toby, the local veterinarian, has disappeared.  His nephew Joe has been tagging along on the rounds for years, despite his crippled leg, so starts filling in at doctoring animals.  Eventually, Joe becomes aware that the study he has inherited from Uncle Toby contains objects not of this Earth, and that might have something to do with his uncle’s disappearance.   Nothing is ever really explained, the story ends when Joe and his Aunt Cinthia disappear as well, gone no one knows where, and the house eventually burns down.  I had to look at the dates to see that it was not a poor attempt to imitate one of Ray Bradbury’s pastorals.   Mr. Hubbard’s style is not suited to this sort of story.

“He Didn’t Like Cats” is the tale of Jacob  Findley, an otherwise blameless fellow who doesn’t like felines.  One day a cat crosses his path, and a momentary impulse makes Jacob kick it–into traffic.  The incident quickly becomes an obsession, and it’s not clear whether the cat is taking supernatural vengeance, or if it’s just an overactive conscience, but Jacob will never sleep well again.   There’s some light comedy to stretch out the story as Jacob becomes the focus of a love triangle without ever grasping that fact.   Mr. Hubbard is a bit too heavy-handed with the humor.

There’s a preview of the next volume, “The Crossroads”, a glossary and the usual potted material.

This is easily the weakest example of Mr. Hubbard’s work I have seen in the Galaxy Press reprints; very skippable.

Book Review: Ben-Hur

Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Judah of the house of Hur is a handsome and wealthy seventeen-year old Judean, saddened by the death of his father, but still possessed of a wise mother and sweet sister.  He’s initially pleased when his Roman friend Messala returns to Jerusalem from several years being educated in Rome.  But Messala has learned the wrong lessons, sarcasm and arrogance, and blasphemes Judah’s deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.  The two young men quarrel.

Ben-Hur

Judah resolves to become a soldier, but this ambition is detoured when he accidentally drops a roof tile on the new Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus.  Gratus, with the connivance of Messala, chooses to interpret this as an assassination attempt, seizes the Hur property, imprisons Judah’s relatives, and sentences Judah to the slave galleys for the rest of what is assumed to be a very short life, without an actual trial or legal conviction.

Three years later, The rowing and a certain amount of cleverness has turned young Judah into a physical marvel, and he catches the eye of a wealthy and prominent Roman admiral.  When he subsequently saves the admiral’s life (and it’s established he was never legally enslaved in the first place), that worthy adopts him as a son to learn Roman combat skills.

Some time later, Judah returns to the East, equipped for vengeance on those who wronged him, they who will learn to fear the man called “Ben-Hur.”  But maybe Judah isn’t actually the important character here.  Maybe he’s just a side story in “a tale of the Christ.”

This 1880 novel was a huge seller for former Union general Lew Wallace, who was governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, and later became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which allowed him to actually visit the area he’d written about.)  Indeed, it became the best-selling novel of the Nineteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian fiction titles of all time.  You may remember the 1959 movie with Charlton Heston.

So, how does it hold up?  To be honest, it’s aged badly.  The story moves at a crawl for most of the book, with pages upon pages of excessive description.  In fairness, when this was written, the reading public didn’t have years of movies and television shows to give them instant mental pictures of the exotic localities and clothing of ancient Judea, so Mr. Wallace needed to go into details of setting and costume.

Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t even show up for the first eighty pages, as we are treated to a retelling of the Nativity which focuses on the viewpoint of Balthasar, the Egyptian wise man who eventually befriends Judah.  The first chapter is actually a very good example of scene-setting, placing us in a desert in the middle of nowhere, with a white camel that has neither bridle or reins, ridden by a man who gives it no direction at all.  When the camel stops, the man prepares a tent with places for two others.  Two white camels, similarly not guided by human hand, approach from different directions to this rendezvous in the trackless desert.  Their riders dismount, and the three men greet each other with a prayer in their three native tongues–and all of them understand each other perfectly!

The second chapter reveals one of the difficulties for the modern reader, as the characters do not so much talk to each other as declaim at each other, making the dialogue a chore to get through.  On the other hand, this is about as much characterization as we get for the Three Wise Men in any adaptation, so that’s nice to have.

The section where we meet Mary, mother of Jesus, is also interesting.  Mr. Wallace takes a vague description of King David as artistic license to portray Mary as beautiful by Nineteenth Century America standards–blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned with delicate features.  He goes into great detail about her face, her clothing, her movements and speech…and never once mentions in the narration or in dialogue that she’s nine months pregnant at the time.  There’s just suddenly a baby a couple of chapters later that she claims to be the mother of.

I should point out that despite the archaic nature of the writing, there is a good story going on here that was lifted out for the movies.  If the reader is patient, there is much to enjoy.

One plotline that didn’t make the 1959 movie is the existence of Ben-Hur’s other love interest, Iras.  She’s the daughter of Balthasar (he presumably married late in life; there’s no mention of her mother), beautiful, musically gifted, learned in poetry and capable of acting on her own initiative.  She makes a good contrast to Daddy’s girl Esther, who is more modest and self-effacing, and Iras takes an early lead in the romantic triangle.

However, Iras’ motivation is largely based on the notion that the Jewish Messiah will be an earthly king that Judah will serve, and become powerful thereby.  The notion of a spiritual savior, so dear to her father Balthasar, doesn’t appeal.  So when Jesus turns out to be more the latter than the former, Iras falls back to her other interests.

This is pretty much Bible fanfiction, so those who don’t like “God-talk” or having a Christian viewpoint forced on them are likely to dislike this book.  Some readers might see homoeroticism in certain passages, as Judah is so handsome that even other men notice, and Messala outright uses classical allusion to hint he’s attracted.

All that said, this is an important and influential book; if you’re willing to put up with its difficulties.  On the other hand, you could just watch the movies for the chariot race.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

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