Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Snow Queen

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Kay and Gerda are best friends who live in adjacent garrets, and often visit each other across the roof, where their parents have installed flower boxes with rosebushes.  They are like brother and sister, and very happy together until one day Kay’s personality changes.  He has been pierced in heart and eye by shards of the Devil’s distorting mirror, so now Kai only sees the flaws and ugliness of people, and his heart is slowly turning to ice.

The Snow Queen

In mid-winter, Kay recklessly goes sledding without Gerda or any other companion, and winds up hitching his sled to the sleigh of the Snow Queen.  As it happens, the queen of all snow has seen Kay before, and decides to keep him, kissing away his memory of family and friends.  Everyone else is convinced that Kay has frozen to death or drowned in the river, but Gerda is not so sure.  When the weather thaws, Gerda goes looking for Kay, having many adventures along the way.

This is one of the many fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), one of Denmark’s most famous authors.  First printed in 1844, it’s also one of his longest fantasy works (but still only about forty pages without illustrations) and much acclaimed.  It’s been adapted many times, and has inspired other works such as the movie Frozen.

Since this is a public domain story, easily downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg, or available at your local library in the children’s section, the main reasons to look at this particular edition are the fresh translation by Jean Hersholt and illustrations by Finnish-heritage artist Sanna Annukka.  The language flows well (though parents will want to read it with their children the first go-round to explain some of the words.)   The illustrations are striking, and perhaps a little frightening in places (this would be a good time to introduce young readers to the variety of Scandinavian art.)  The art is very stylized, which works well for the magical beings involved in the story.

The Snow Queen is very much steeped in Scandinavian Christian folklore, from the hobgoblin who is in fact the Devil and his cruel mirror, to Gerda’s prayers bringing angels to defend her in time of need.  It’s stated that Gerda’s simple faith and innocence give her power–it never occurs to her that it’s odd to be able to speak to flowers (but not get much out of the exchange) or that a robber girl will suddenly choose to help her on her quest rather than kill her.

And this tale is surprising rich in  female characters: the wise Grandmother, alien Snow Queen, selfish Flower Witch, clever Princess and wild Robber Girl, as well as sweet Gerda herself.  Some of these characters would make good stories with their own adventures.  It’s notable that there is no confrontation with the Snow Queen at the end–she’s away on a business trip when Gerda arrives to free Kay.  Perhaps this is for the best, as someone must see that snow gets where it belongs.

One aspect that may be troubling for parents is that after Kay is affected by the distorting mirror, he only finds beauty in mathematics, logic and symmetry.  He’s noted for being able to do arithmetic in his head–with fractions!

The book has sturdy covers and thick pages, so should survive frequent re-reading by youngsters well.  Recommended to families that don’t already have a copy of this classic tale, and people who like this style of art.

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

And now, let’s have the trailer of a Finnish movie adaptation!

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1 by Adachitoka

Mutsumi is in a bad way.   Not only is she under stress studying for the high school entrance exams, but her classmates have turned against her, bullying Mutsumi and encouraging her to self-harm.  She’s locked herself in a toilet stall for a good cry when suddenly she sees a telephone number in the graffiti advertising someone named “Yato” who promises to solve her problems.  Desperate, Mutsumi calls the number.

Noragami: Stray God #1

To her shock, Yato (who appears to be a teenage boy) and his female companion Tomone teleport straight into the girls’ room to discuss Mutsumi’s problem.  It turns out that Yato is a kami (“spirit” or “god”), but he’s at the very bottom of the hierarchy, with no worshipers or space in a shrine, making him a “stray.”  In an effort to increase his visibility and save up cash to buy a place to live, Yato has scribbled his number all over town, and charges five yen (roughly a nickle) for his problem-solving services.  Tomone is Yato’s shinki, a living weapon with a mind of her own.

Unfortunately, Yato isn’t all that bright, and tends to solve problems by cutting them with his sword.  Mutsumi’s problems are partially caused by an ayakashi (hostile spirit) that is amplifying and feeding on the negative emotions caused by exam stress, and cutting that is relatively easy.  But that isn’t the only issue, and how Yato finally solves it disgusts Tomone so much that she quits, leaving Yato weaponless at the end of the first story.

This series ran in Monthly Shounen Magazine in long chapters, so there are only three in this volume.  In the second story, Yato meets Hiyori Iki, a human girl who is a big pro wrestling fan, and due to an act of selfless courage develops the ability/problem of her soul slipping loose from her body.   In soul form, she’s physically powerful, but also very vulnerable, gaining a “tail” that’s actually a link back to her physical body–if it’s cut, she dies!  The third story ends with Yato gaining a new shinki, Yukine, who is decidedly unimpressed with his master.

The name of the series immediately brings to mind the classic 1930s manga Norakuro, about a stray dog that joins a canine-people version of the Imperial Japanese army, learns discipline and valor, and climbs the enlisted ranks.  Little-known in America, it was popular and influential in Japan, with demilitarized versions appearing after World War Two ended.

Noragami is fun adventure-comedy, contrasting Yato’s blunt and sometimes abrasive personality against Hiyori’s naivety and sunniness.  While both of them are eager to help people, Yato is goal-oriented and must be compensated first (even if it is just a nickle) while Hiyori just does it because it’s the right thing to do.  Yukine barely appears in this volume, so a full read on his character is not available here.  The art is decent and conveys the action and mood nicely.

As mentioned, the first story does involve bullying, and there is an element of victim-blaming.  There’s a small amount of incidental fanservice–thankfully, the “camera” does not linger.  And of course there’s a certain amount of fantasy violence.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up; parents of younger readers should point out why victim-blaming is not useful.

This series was popular enough to get a two-season anime adapation, which I have not seen.   Recommended for fans of shounen fantasy manga.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

Comic Book Review: Whiteout / Whiteout: Melt

Comic Book Review: Whiteout/Whiteout: Melt written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Steve Lieber

Carrie Stetko is a U.S. Marshal who’s been reassigned to Antarctica after an…incident at work and the death of her husband.  It’s been a fairly quiet duty post, and Marshal Stetko is getting to feel at home on the Ice.  Then a drilling expedition disappears, leaving only a badly mangled, nearly unidentifiable corpse at the site.

Whiteout

There is murder afoot, and soon Carrie is fighting for her life, not without losses.  She’s no longer sure who she can trust, especially British investigator Lily Sharpe, who most assuredly has her own agenda.  Worse, the investigation must be completed before the mass evacuation of personnel as winter approaches

Melt is a sequel.  Marshal Stetko is called back to the Antarctic from her first vacation in years when a Russian science station explodes.  Certain government agencies want to know if there was anything…against treaty…going on at the station.  Carrie quickly learns the explosion was no accident, and must team up with Russian agent Captain Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuchin.  It seems there might have been something illegal at the station after all, and Carrie must decide between her priorities.

Melt

Assuming the Ice lets anyone survive the chase.

These thrillers are written by Greg Rucka, who is known for his research and attention to detail,   The first volume is a bit more of a mystery than the latter, which is much more about survival.  Art is by Steve Lieber, who took the challenge of a black and white series where white is the dominant color, and used a variety of inking tools to great effect.

This is exciting stuff.  Antarctica is one of the most hostile places on Earth even in good weather.  Add bad weather and human murderousness, and Carrie is fighting for her life most of the time.

The first volume has an attempted rape, and several closeups of Marshal Stetko’s mangled hand.  Melt has some nudity and a (non-explicit, consensual) sex scene.  Both volumes have some harsh language.  As such, parents should heed the “Older Audiences” rating Oni Press has given the books.

There was a Whiteout movie made which takes much of its plot from the first volume.  Marshal Stetko was prettied up quite a bit, Lily Sharpe was replaced by a more conventional male investigative partner, and Carrie’s competence level was lowered somewhat to allow the male heroic characters more to do.  This is believed to have contributed to a relatively poor critical reception.

I recommend this series for thriller fans, lovers of ice and snow, and people who saw the movie.

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lewis

Disclaimer: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the assumption that I would write a review.

Pacific Crest Trailside ReaderThis anthology is a collection of short stories and essays regarding the Oregon and Washington legs of the Pacific Crest Trail, and there is a companion volume covering the California leg. Most of the pieces are true stories of hiking the long trail, but there are a couple of Coyote tales and some historical notes, as well as an essay on Mount St. Helens (not on the trail but visible from it) by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The stories take up only a few pages apiece, which makes it excellent reading for times when you only have a short minute or two to spare. There’s a strong unity of themes, and if you’re bored by tales of the great outdoors, this may not be the book for you.

I’d highly recommend this book to hikers, outdoorsy types and armchair adventurers; it might also do well for young adult readers and students who are taking related courses

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