ATTENTION CHALLENGE PARTICIPANTS


***2015 Vintage Bingo Challenge Change Alert: due to financial constraints, I am forced to revise my prize offerings for 2015. Please see the original challenge post via the Headquarters link for details.***

I hope you will check out the new Super Book Password Challenge. Everyone is welcome to guess the Password. We now have a winner on Bev's Super Password--Congrats, Ryan! Clues still open on Ryan's and Debbie's Passwords.


Some of Bev's Favorite Quotes...



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mind Meld: All About That Backlist

http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2015/01/mind-meld-all-about-that-backlist/


I am very excited to say that today you will find me over at SF Signal discussing the science fiction backlist with current SF authors, established reviewers, and fellow bloggers. Their feature, "Mind Meld," regularly asks a question of a cross-section of the science fiction community and this week's prompt was:

Q: All about that backlist: You’re reading through (or have read through) an author’s backlist? Brilliant!  where would you suggest a reader new to that author’s work start?

To see my answer and the answers of other contributors please visit--either through the link above or by clicking on SF Signal's "Mind Meld" image above. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Dead Man in Trieste: Reviw

A Dead Man in Trieste is the first novel in Michael Pearce's series featuring Seymour of Special Branch. Growing up in the East End with exposure to the languages of many immigrants , Seymour has a special flair for languages that makes him invaluable to the Service and just the man to send to the Trieste when Lomax, the British Consul, goes missing. Of course, the older members of Special Branch aren't too sure--after all, he's "a member of one of those East End immigrant families from somewhere in Europe. He's all right, but with these blokes you never can tell. You can never rely on them. A bit dubious really." 

But with the mix of nationalities in Trieste--Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, Slavs, an Irishman or two, and a Bosnian/Croatian mix known as Herzegovinians [Seymour isn't even sure what that means]--Seymour feels more at home than some of those upperclass Foreign Office chappies might. He still has to feel his way carefully through the nationalist movements that are threatening to upset life in the port city. His real job, however, is to figure out exactly what Lomax had been up to and who he was involved with--no easy task, especially when he is acting in an unofficial capacity and keeping his position as a policeman hidden. 

On the surface, it looks like the Consul spent his days lolling at the tables at the Cafe of Mirrors in Piazza Grande, hobnobbing with the artistic crowd. Seymour knows there must be more to Lomax than that and the longer the man is missing the more sinister his absence seems. When Lomax's body is found by one of the fishing boats, it becomes apparent that the man was mixed up in something more than artistic endeavors and Seymour must work through the man's friends and the local police to discover what that something was.

Having read the second novel (A Dead Man in Istanbul), I decided to hunt up the debut of this series before reading any others. I have to say--if I had read this one first, I might not have gone on. Trieste, is a very slow-moving book. Very little action--until the end--and very little clue-gathering. For someone who likes their mysteries from the Golden Age where clues are strewn about, fair play is in force and an effort is made to distract the reader from the culprit, this is a disappointment. Not that I didn't guess who did it--I did. But not because there were clues to follow--simply because there really aren't that many people with motives to choose from. 

The book does give us an interesting look at Trieste before World War I broke out. Good period detail and historic descriptions of the tensions building in that area of the world. The cast of characters are quite colorful--although they could use a bit of depth. It was an okay read at ★★. Since #2 garnered three stars, we shall hope that the third novel (which I have sitting on the TBR pile) will be an improvement as well.


A bit of explanation--I am participating in the Travel the World Challenge and the European Reading Challenge. Although Trieste is now part of Italy, during the time period in which A Dead Man in Trieste takes place, it fell under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was considered part of Austia--serving as Austria's main trading port. I am therefore claiming this book under Austria for the purposes of the challenges.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Golden Slipper & Other Problems for Violet Strange: Review

The Golden Slipper & Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915) is a collection of stories by Anna Katharine Green featuring an early edition of that familiar figure, the "girl detective." Violet Strange is a pretty young debutante with a wealthy father and the spare time to secretly investigate various matters within her social sphere. As becomes a young lady of her station, she is almost always pulled reluctantly into the situation--particularly if there is any bloodshed or violence involved. But the man who introduces her to these problems manages to appeal to her sense of justice and sympathetic interest...or to her need of money. He's not entirely sure why she, a child of fortune, should desire money enough to take on "uncongenial work," but I suspect it is because she wants a sense of independence that having access to your own funds gives. She is free to spend it on what she likes--or to use it support just causes if that is her wont.

I found myself liking the stories which were primarily pure puzzle far more than those with a Gothic or highly emotional bent ("The House of Clocks" and the second half of "Missing: Page Thirteen") and the ones where Miss Strange was less centrally involved were also less satisfying. Overall, a good collection of stories from the early 20th and a nice peek at an early female detective. ★★★  and 1/2.

A Brief Synopsis of Each "Problem":

"The Golden Slipper"  Miss Strange proves who is behind a series of high society thefts.  It would seem to be one of group of friends known as "The Inseparables"--with suspicion focused on one of the young ladies in particular.  Miss Strange uses her own jewels as bait to catch a sneak thief.

"The Second Bullet" In this story, Miss Strange sets out to discover proof of a second bullet--proof that will remove the stigma of suicide from a man's death and allow his widow to collect much needed insurance money.

"An Intangible Clue" This story involves Miss Strange in a "sordid" murder case--something she never intended to be part of.  But...without her observations in the needlewoman's home, the perpetrator would never have been caught.

"The Grotto Spectre" Miss Strange is called upon by a man who once represented one of society's grand families and who is now shunned because of his ill-chosen marriage (to a woman who led him into the clutches of gambling) and the rumors that he caused her death (though cleared at the inquest). He, however, suspects that his father may be responsible and asks Miss Strange to settle his suspicions once and for all.

"The Dreaming Lady" This time Miss Strange stipulates that her next case must not contain any kind of horror or death. Her conditions are met when Mrs. Quintard, sister of a well-known financier, is in desperate need of someone to find a missing will.

"The House of Clocks" A strange (no pun intended) Gothic piece. There really isn't much of puzzle for Miss Strange to unravel. It is all told to her by the faithful servant of an evil step-mother....


"The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock" Miss Strange is given a bundle of papers describing an unsolved murder from before her interest in puzzles began. Her job? To find an entry to the home of a doctor who had lived beside the murdered man. Her real involvement in the resolution? Minimal--it is her employer who really solve this one. It would seem that Miss Strange's career as a sleuth is petering out....

"Missing: Page Thirteen" Miss Strange decides to take just one more case--at the instigation of Robert Upjohn (the man involved in the "Grotto" mystery). This time, she is busy tracking down a missing scientific formula relating to explosives [aren't they always?]. She quickly solves the mystery of the missing page and is then made privy to another, older secret.

"Violet's Own" This is not really a problem--except that it is Violet Strange's telling of the initial problem that set her on her course for earning money as an investigator. And it proved my thoughts on her motives to be right--she did, indeed, want money (not of her father) that she could spend as she chose.


This counts for the "Amateur Detective" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card. I am also offering it up as an entry for Rich Westwood's monthly challenge. Each month he posts a publication date for review entries at his Past Offences blog--January's date is 1915.

 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Greedy Gremlin: Review

The Greedy Gremlin is the second in a juvenile series called Pixie Tricks. The series premise is that fourteen fairies of different sorts (pixies, sprites, gremlins, etc) have managed to escape from their world into the world of humans. And they are all out to cause trouble. A fairy named Sprite is sent by the Fairy Queen to trick them all and send them back where they belong. He teams up with a clever girl by the name of Violet and each book is an installment in their quest to trick all fourteen fairies. 

This particular story features their "battle" with Jolt--a gremlin who loves machinery and gadgets of all sorts and who loves making them work improperly. He becomes fascinated with video games and when Violet's cousin Leon tries to keep Jolt from playing his game, Jolt magics Leon onto the screen. So not only do Sprite and Violet need to trick Jolt to send him back to the land of the fairies, but they also need to save Leon from being destroyed in one of the levels of Action Kingdom.

This is a fun chapter book that children should enjoy thoroughly. The main premise (tricking fairies into doing something that will send them back home) reminds me of Mr. Mxyzptlk in the Super Friends cartoon. He was also a trickster--causing all sorts of trouble while not really being a super villain. In order to send him back to his own dimension, the Super Friends had to trick him into saying/spelling his own name backwards. Enjoyable story and easy to read for kids. ★★★ 

This is the fourth Clue book for my new Super Book Password Challenge: clue portion of the title is in bold above. Please feel free to join in and guess (using the form provided at the Headquarters link) even if you're not inclined to participate as a reader/clue-giver.
 

Death of a Dwarf: Review

According to Classic Crime Fiction, Death of a Dwarf (1955) is the fifth in a mystery series by Harold Kemp and features Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent and his team of sleuths. Like me, the folks at CCF have found very little information about Kemp out on the interwebs. If anyone has any information beyond his birth year (1896) and short bibliography (seven titles in all), I'd love to hear about it. 

Kemp's story, as you might guess, revolves around the late-night murder of a dwarf along the road in the village of Castle Ascombe. The trouble is there is nothing to identify him--not a scrap in his pockets. No one admits to recognizing the man and, given the aroma of whiskey that surrounds the body, he is taken for a wandering drunk who wandered too far into the path of one of the few motor vehicles to travel that way. But Sergeant Mason, the local officer, isn't too sure and he reports to his Division Headquarters where plans are made for Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent to make a run to the country for a look-see.

Before Brent can make his trip to Castle Ascombe, however, somebody (or bodies) relieves Mason of his corpse, leaving nothing but the man's hat behind. Who would want to steal a murdered man? And why was he in Castle Ascombe anyway? Inspector Brent is quite sure that somebody know the answer to that little question. 

Then the vicar starts acting weird--hiding under hedges and telling unnecessary lies. The doctor plays hard of hearing and avoids answering questions. And instead of pussy down the well, we have policemen down there. The lord of the manor would like to believe that everything is all sewn up when it looks like a naturalized Polish citizen has hanged himself after Inspector Brent questioned him once too often. But, again, the officers aren't ready to buy the easy answer. Someone would like them to...but then justice wouldn't be served. And that's what Jimmy Brent gets paid to do.

I had never heard of Harold Kemp before I walked into Half-Price Books on a day that they were holding a bargain price sale (so much percent-off). There on the Nostalgia shelf sat a pristine little hardback with dust jacket and all--even at HPB's normally low price, I probably would have passed Kemp up because it was still a bit out of my price range and a totally unknown author. But with a rather hefty percent off, I couldn't resist. I'm not sure whether I should be glad or not. The story is quite good with a standard motive given a nice little twist. Fairly clued--it's certainly not Kemp's fault that I completely forgot a little tidbit that he prominently displayed for me back in the early chapters. Likeable characters--the interactions between Jimmy Brent and his superiors, colleagues, and underlings are delightful and supporting characters from the village are just as good (save for a few suspects...but then we're not supposed to like them). There's even a knowing little old lady calmly knitting in her little apartment--but none appear to be stock characters used purely for effect. Finely drawn surroundings--nice country village and there's even (see the cover) a menacing castle with ruins. My uncertainty lies in the fact that I'm quite sure that future installments of Brent and company are going to be rather difficult to come by (unless I want to break down and search for him through internet sellers). ★★★★ for an excellent, serendipitous find.

Since this was published in 1955--the same year my friend Richard made his first appearance, this fulfills the Birthday square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card. And--I didn't know this when I picked the book out--the titular murder takes place on his very birthday. He claims to have an alibi...




Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Day of the Triffids: Review

You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain. (p. 93)

And, at its core, that's what The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951) is about--how quickly everything mankind has been used to and sure of is destroyed when the majority of the population is blinded after the Earth's orbit takes it through a strange meteor shower (or comet's tail or even a nuclear fireworks show from orbiting satellites--we're just not sure) and venomous, carnivorous plants which are ambulatory start preying on the survivors. It is also about how humanity reacts in the face of such a shattering experience. Far more terrifying than the possibility of death by triffid is the realization of how quickly humanity could lose the qualities that have seemed to separate us from the beasts. Man can become very beast-like when the trappings of civilization are stripped from him.

Whether they decide polygamy is the way to go (to better ensure future generations) or to team up sighted people with those who are blinded or revert to strict religious tenets, it is interesting to watch various groups come up with survival plans and new "rules" for their colonies. It is also interesting to think about what tactics I might adopt if in the same circumstances. Despite the "Killer Plant" B-movie monster theme, Triffids is really a book of thoughtful contemplation about what makes humans survivors and what about humanity should survive.
 
****Spoiler (highlight the apparent blank area if interested) The finale is very open-ended. Of course, so is life. We never know what will happen tomorrow. And neither do the survivors in Triffids. They have driven the man-eating plants from the island, but the triffids still hold sway over much of England and the world. Humanity will have quite a battle before them if they are going to reclaim the Earth. It's left to our imagination whether they succeed.

This story wound up affecting me more vividly than I anticipated. My words of wisdom for my co-workers this morning? "If you ever decide to read the classic SF story The Day of the Triffids, don't do it right before bedtime." ★★★★

Quotes
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. [opening line]

It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that "it can't happen here" -- that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.

It's humiliating to be dependent, anyway, but it's still a poorer pass to have no one to depend on.

Nobody is going to be muddle-headed enough to confuse ignorance with innocence now - it's too important. Nor is ignorance going to be cute or funny anymore. It is going to be dangerous, very dangerous. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge



It's back!!  Sarah is once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  She hopes to encourage bloggers to read more classics.  By reading and posting about a minimum of six classic books (six categories out of a possible 12), one lucky winner will receive a $30 gift from Amazon.com or The Book Depository! All books must have been published prior to 1965 (or written pre-1965 and published posthumously).

 Here are this year's categories:

1. 19th C Classic:
2. 20th C Classic (between 1900-1965):
3. Classic by a Woman Author:
4. Classic in Translation:
5. A Very Long Classic (500+ pages):
6. A Classic Novella (less than 250 pages): The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham [228 pages] (1/22/15)
7. Classic with Person's Name in Title:
8. Humorous/Satirical Classic:
9. Forgotten Classic (less than 1,000 ratings on Goodreads): The Golden Slipper & Other Problems for Violet Strange by Anna Katharine Green (1/26/15)
10. Nonfiction Classic:
11. Classic Children's Book:
12. Classic Play:


Lucky No. 15 Challenge


January 15, 2015 – January 15, 2016

This reading challenge is hosted by Books to Share. For full details and to sign-up, please see this post.

I missed seeing the Lucky No.14 Challenge last year, but have decided to join up for this round. This challenge is pretty straightforward--requiring us to read 15 books (or more) from 15 categories below.  

Here are the 15 categories and my books (any tentative titles are subject to change: 

Chunky Brick (more than 500 pages): The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss [662 pages]
Something New (newly purchased):  
Something Borrowed (from a friend, library, etc.): The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham [library] (1/22/15)
It’s Been There Forever (TBR pile!) 
Freebies Time (LAST gifted book/giveaway/etc) 
Bargain All The Way (bought because of price, not necessarily content) 
Favorite Color (cover) 
First Initial (author's first name starts with same as you) 
Super Series (one book from a series): A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce [1st in the Seymour of Special Branch series] (1/27/15)
Opposites Attract (written by someone of opposite gender) 
Randomly Picked (someone else pick from your TBR pile)
Cover Lust (pick a book with a cover you love) 
Who Are You Again? (author new to you):  Death of a Dwarf by Harold Kemp (1/25/15)
One Word Only! (one-word title):  
Dream Destination (setting never visited but you'd like to):


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited: Mini-Review

Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited is a collection of thirteen stories either based on Twilight Zone episodes or new stories written in the style of the television series. As far as I can tell, five of the short stories aired as actual episodes. And it is not entirely clear where the others came from. The title page reads "adapted by Walter B. Gibson" but nothing in the book explains what he adapted these stories from....episode suggestions and outlines that didn't make the cut? I'm just not sure.

The collection takes me back to elementary school. The edition itself reminds me of the large school-binding editions of Alfred Hitchcock sponsored collections like "Stories to Read with the Light On," etc. with very elementary school style illustrations. It gives me a nice feeling of nostalgia--but I can't say that the book as a whole does a whole lot for me. Most of the stories are written in a rather pedestrian, just-the-facts-ma'am fashion--not a lot of frills, not a lot of description and explanation. The best of the stories provide a bit more background and window-dressing--not necessarily explaining everything about the odd things that happen (after all, it wouldn't be the Twilight Zone if we understood it entirely), but making the experiences of the characters a bit more believable.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the best stories are those I've identified as airing on television. While those stories are stronger than the majority, the strongest stories seem to be "new" (whatever that might mean) and feature ghosts or characters rooted firmly in the past. There are two men who survive the Civil War only to head west and inadvertently wind up involved in one of the largest Indian/Army battles ever waged. There is a reporter from the 1960s who is sent to write about a ski-jumping contest on Iron Mountain who interacts with ghosts from the turn-of-the-century. There's ghostly riverboat pilot who takes revenge on the man who sent him to a watery grave. And there is the house on an island haunted by the ghost of woman who murdered several patrons of the inn (as it was in the days of river steamboats) and who tries to add one more to her tally.

Overall--this is a book that I would have thoroughly enjoyed when I was in elementary school. Reading it now, it was a fairly good, light read with a mixture of highly interesting historically based/ghost stories and other somewhat entertaining stories about premonitions, genies, and various unexplainable circumstances. ★★ and a 1/4. 

This is the third Clue book for my new Super Book Password Challenge: clue portion of the title is in bold above. Please feel free to join in and guess (using the form provided at the Headquarters link) even if you're not inclined to participate as a reader/clue-giver.
 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Alpha 2: Review

In the 1970s Robert Silverberg edited a series of short stories and Alpha 2 (1971) is the second in this series which collects a roster of science fiction's best fiction from old masters and then new writers. Alpha 2 includes such well-known names as Poul Anderson, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, C. M. Kornbluth, Cordwainer Smith, and Jack Vance. Less recognizable--to me, at any rate--are Algis Budrys, Wyman Guin, Gerald Jonas, and Wilma Shore, although I'm quite sure I've read Shore's "Good-bye Amanda Jean" before. It seems to me a story suitable to a collection under the Hitchcock name, but I cannot find evidence that this is where I found it first. An interesting collection with the usual amount of terrific stories mixed with the not-so-great. ★★


A brief look at the stories:
"Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson. Given the incredibly harsh conditions on Jupiter, if humans are ever to investigate the planet it will have to be by proxy. But robotic equipment just doesn't give the same interpretations that a human visitor might. Anderson comes up with an ingenious way in which humanity could experience Jupiter "first hand" and an interesting twist on what might happen if our proxy developed a mind of his own...

"Goodbye Amanda Jean" by Wilma Shore: This is a very creepy tale. No explanations given--we don't know if other animals have gone extinct and that drives the rather unusual hunting season described in the story. But we can only hope that the story is not in any way prophetic.

"A Man of the Renaissance" by Wyman Guin: A story of a "superman" who is so sure of his knowledge and vision for his world that he is willing to give up everything, even the woman he loves to make certain that vision becomes reality.

"Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night" by Algis Budrys: A man arranges to have sole control of the ultimate entertainment system--no matter who he has to step on to get it. But then his competition does him one better.

"Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick: PKD tells us a little bedtime nightmare about the dictatorship that takes over the earth....but isn't quite the dictatorship that it seems. But then nothing in this story is....

"That Share of Glory" by C. M. Kornbluth: A young novice in a monastery-like training ground for interstellar translators finally earns his place on board a trading ship...but soon learns that his testing isn't over. Will he pass?

"The Men Return" by Jack Vance: Vance weaves a tale of the Earth whose universal orbit takes it into space where the physical laws that man and beast have been subject to no longer apply...what might that Earth look like? And who is the master of the Earth then?

"The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard: This one, I'm afraid, makes no sense to me. It's like a dream involving time and the main character seems to be running out of time and sleep...but goes into a coma or goes to meet the voices in the stream of time. Or something. And there's a guy following him around who never sleeps. And...yeah. [I told you it makes no sense.]

"The Burning of the Brain" by Cordwainer Smith: What if ship captains controlled their ships with their brains? And what if the proper coordinates for travelling from here to there got lost? What would the captain have to do to get his ship safely back where it belongs? This is that story.

"The Shaker Revival" by Gerald Jonas: The young people (younger than 30, that is) host a revolution by reviving the tenants of the Shakers with modifications suitable to a response to the 70s-ish era of rampant consumerism. The New Shakers adopt a creed of "No war. No money. No hate. No sex" (The 4 Noes) and the story relates the reaction of the feebies (the parents and the establishment) to revolution.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Dead Man in Istanbul: Review

A Dead Man in Istanbul is a historical mystery by Michael Pearce set in 1911 in the leisurely days before the First World War. Special Branch Officer Seymour is sent to Turkey by the Foreign Office to investigate the death of the Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Istanbul. Cunnigham had made a lot of romantic noise about Hero and Leander and the famous swim across the Dardanelles Straits and vowed that he would make an attempt to recreate the legendary feat. But instead of Hero it was the dark figure of Death waiting on the other side and as soon as he reached the far shore he fell down dead with a bullet in the center of his forehead. Did he really swim in memory of the famous lovers or was it a cover for a spying mission? Seymour must follow a winding trail from the music theatres of Istanbul to coffee shops and barber shops to the Palace full of princes jockeying for position as the current ruler fades physically. Is it a matter of political violence and have the legendary Flesheaters returned to restore the Empire to the old ways? Or is the motive far more personal?

This was a good solid introduction (although it is the second in the series) to Pearce's historical mysteries. He authentically evokes the time and setting and introduces an interesting investigator--I do hope he gives more descriptive passages about Seymour in the future. The bulk of the book is carried by dialogue. Pearce is very adept with dialogue, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. One quibble--probably a very personal one--is the overuse of "Old boy" in addressing one another. There is one character in particular who throws those around as often as a Valley Girl uses "like." In fact, if I had read just a few more "Old boys" from that character, I would have been looking for a way to enter the page and murder him--that would give Seymour a nifty little mystery to solve.

Overall, I enjoyed the story itself and look forward to reading more of the series. The culprit was a little too obvious to me--I just thought Pearce was making rather a point of a certain possible motive and that, therefore, that couldn't be the real motive. I wound up being correct but I don't know if everyone would have a similar reaction. ★★


This is the second Clue book for my new Super Book Password Challenge: clue portion of the title is in bold above. Please feel free to join in and guess (using the form provided at the Headquarters link) even if you're not inclined to participate as a reader/clue-giver.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Reading Through Time" Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

January 6, 2015-December 31, 2015

Amy, our hostess for the Cloak & Dagger Reading Challenge, was in search of a historical reading challenge and didn't find precisely what she was looking for...so she decided to put together her own. It's pretty simple...just read historical fiction. She's left the definition up to us and given us different levels to shoot for. There will be monthly link-ups and prizes. For full details, see her link above.

I'm starting small and signing up for:

Anthony Doerr = 5 books

If I find myself with more historical fiction on deck, I'll up my level. But I will consider my commitment met with 5 books.

1. A Dead Man in Istanbul by Michael Pearce [set in 1911] (1/14/15)
2. Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited adapted by Walter B. Gibson [various time periods from the Civil War era to turn-of-the-century (1900) to World War II] (1/20/15)
3. A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce [set in 1910] (1/27/15)
4.
5.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mother Finds a Body: Review

"In this steamy sequel to The G-String Murders, Gypsy Rose Lee's noir thriller reads as if it's ripped from her own diary pages"

The quote above is from the back blurb of a reprint of Gypsy Rose Lee's Mother Finds a Body (1942). I really must quibble with the statement. A. There is nothing steamy about the novel, except perhaps the weather in Texas--which is hot, but I'm not sure steamy applies (that would imply more humidity than I think is available). And, B. It doesn't read like a noir thriller. It actually reads like a tired vaudeville joke about how many people will fit into a camper trailer. (Yeah, it's about that amusing.)

We are supposed to believe that Gypsy and her new hubby Biff have set out on an Eastward-bound honeymoon in a travel trailer with not only Gypsy's mother in tow, but, apparently, an entire burlesque show as well--burlesque dancers, comedians, animal acts and all. They're all stuffed into this trailer and quite honestly I spent more time trying to figure out just exactly how big this camper is and how did they manage to get everybody in there than I did paying attention to the mystery. The plot of said mystery (what little plot there is) was lost on me from the moment Gypsy's mama nearly burns the woods down in an effort to create a diversion while she digs a grave to hide the corpse mentioned in the title. 

So, what's it all about? Well, Gypsy and Biff get married...on a boat (well, a water taxi). And they dredge up a best man from the sidelines. When they decide to go on their honeymoon, Mother comes along ('cause after all, she missed out on the wedding, so they felt like she shouldn't miss the honeymoon. [Don't ask me]) and they manage to pick up the rest of the burlesque folk along the way. [Don't ask me that, either...I still don't understand why.] Long about the time they get settled in a trailer park in Ysleta, Texas, Mother decides to take a peek in the tub under the bed and discovers a decomposing body. It just happens to be the body of the best man. He's been shot. Why has no one noticed the horrible smell--well, apparently the dog [one of the menagerie] has a habit of dragging awful smelling things into the camper and Mother has asthma and takes some horrid smelling concoction to counteract the attacks. [Sounds reasonable to me.]

Mother doesn't want her little darling girl to get mixed up in any bad publicity and decides that they shouldn't tell the police. When Gypsy and Biff disagree, she pretends to give in as long as they'll wait till the next morning to tell the sheriff. What they don't know is she has a plan for getting rid of the corpse. She sets a fire (never meaning it to nearly burn down the woods and to destroy the trailer of another camper in the park) and while everyone is running around trying to put the fire out, she hauls the body away and buries it.

The Sheriff comes along to investigate, finds the barely hidden corpse (which has since had gas poured on it and burned), and wants to know what's up. Mother seems to have him convinced that it can't be her fault (or the fault of anyone in the entourage)--even when she admits to starting the fire, burying the body, and is caught hiding a gun. Then, after the best man's body is removed, another body appears--this time knifed in the back. Could it be possible that the deaths are related? If so, how?

The way everything ties together really stretches my belief...I'm still not sure I believe it. If the second murder had been the only one, I would have been more convinced--but then I'm not sure how it would relate to Gypsy...the thread was tenuous as it was. I also wasn't terribly charmed with the characters other than Gypsy and Biff. Mother is a pain in the fanny and I would have left the other burlesque people somewhere along the side of the road long before Texas. The best thing about the book was the unique nature--a mystery written by Gypsy Rose Lee--and the excellent condition of the Tower edition that I found at the Red Cross Book Sale last fall. Unfortunately, I didn't find the story as good as the edition. There are a few good reviews on GoodReads, so your mileage may vary. [And successful challengers in my reading challenges, may have a chance to find out--I believe I'll be adding it to the prize vault.] ★★

Gypsy Rose Lee was born on January 9, 1911 and so she counts as my January entry for the Birthday Month Challenge. The book also counts for the "Woman in the Title" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Black Holes & Bug-Eyed Monsters: Review

Asimov's Choice: Black Holes & Bug-Eyed Monsters (1977), edited by George H. Scithers, is a collection of stories featured in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine--including a story by Asimov himself. Writing a really good straight short story takes a lot of skill; writing a really good short science fiction is, I believe, even more difficult. To drop a reader in a brand new world--whether that world is an alternate Earth, future Earth, or an entirely alien world--and make it comprehensible as well as believable within the limits of the shorter form is no easy task. And, unfortunately, not all of the authors in this collection were completely up to the task. There may be a reason why I am thoroughly unfamiliar with the work of writers such as F. M. Busby (although I have, at least, come across his name before), Richard Lee Hawkins, and Steven Utley. One does hope that other work--for I see on the interwebs that some of them are "well-known"--is stronger than the stories here.

The best of the bunch are John Varley's "Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe," "Low Grade Ore" by Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., "Perchance to Dream" by Sally A. Sellers, and "To Sin Against Systems" by Garry R. Osgood. The story by Asimov is, as always, a fine one, but it is one of the Black Widowers tales and not, strictly speaking, a science fiction tale--though the solution does involve science. And, besides, I've read it before so the impact wasn't quite as great. 

Varley does a marvelous job of selling me on the idea of an artificial world in the heart of Pluto. We know that Piri, our narrator, is playing at a second childhood in those undergound waters, but we don't know exactly why and there is great pleasure in finding out at the end. "Low Grade Ore" by O'Donnell is also excellent. In just twenty-five pages, he convinces us of alien invasion by teleportation and the method by which a little child leads humanity to successfully fight back against the victors. "Perchance to Dream" and "To Sin Against the Systems" each give us a different take on what life for someone with an extended life-expectancy would be like. In one case, the young woman longs to die, but can't--until her husband, a doctor, is willing to help her find a way. In the other, a man with the capability to repeatedly "metamorphose" into a new life must outwit a man determined to learn--and use--his secret.

The collection wound up being very balanced and enjoyable--not quite "The Best in Science Fiction" as promised on the back cover. But a solid group of stories from the 1970s. ★★★ 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Police Procedurals:Review

Police Procedurals (1985), edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini, is the second volume in the Academy Mystery Novellas series. For this series Greenberg and Pronzini chose works by respected crime fiction writers--most works which had never appeared in anthologies before--and organized the novellas into editions based on sub-genre. As the title indicates, this collection brings together four novellas that give us a taste of police procedure as envisioned by Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Georges Simenon, and Hugh Pentecost.

McBain's work, The Empty Hours from 1960 has the Steve Carella and the men of the 87th Precinct investigating the death of a woman found dead in a cheap apartment. From the beginning, things are not what they seem. The woman looks like an African American to the officers first on the scene, but she proves to be Caucasian--blackened and bloated by the intense heat and rapid decomposition. They assume she was a woman down on her luck--but her clothes prove to be more expensive than her surroundings would warrant and her bank account is nice and full. As they check up on her, they find that she was Claudia Davis, a wealthy young woman with a generous trust fund. They also learn that her cousin had come to stay with her not so very long ago, but more recently had died in a boating accident. Now both women are dead. But why? And what happened to the missing $5,000 from her safe deposit box? This is an excellent procedural--very descriptive writing, but not so much of a puzzler and very little misdirection.

Quote:
Nobody like Monday morning. It was invented for hangovers. It is really not the beginning of a new week, but only the tail end of the week before. Nobody likes it, and it doesn't have to be rainy or gloomy or blue in order to provoke disaffection. It can be bright and sunny and the beginning of August. (p. 39)

The Sound of Murder (1960) by Westlake is the story of a young girl who seems mature beyond her years who comes to Detective Abraham Levine in Brooklyn's 43rd Precinct to accuse her mother of murder. Amy Thornbridge Walker is positive that her mother has killed her step-father with a "loud noise" (he suffered from a weak heart) and wouldn't be surprised if she hadn't done in her father as well. She has no proof to offer the detective--just her calm assurance that it happened. Levine, who suffers from a bit of heart trouble himself, begins to believe there may be something to the girl's story and sets out to investigate. But as with the first story, everything may not be quite as it seems. This one is nicely done with a clue planted right in front of the reader but so subtly it will probably be overlooked.

Simenon's Storm in the Channel (1944) sees now-retired Superintendent Maigret setting off with his wife on holiday to England. But a storm in English Channel prevents their crossing and they take refuge in boarding house. Maigret finds himself on something of a busman's holiday when the maid is found shot to death after helping one of the other boarders carry luggage down to the boat. The local detective thinks the retired policeman may be past it, but Maigret soon proves that he can read clues in a menu with dress measurements doodled on it. It isn't long before the detective has a confessed murderer in charge. This is straight deduction and Maigret makes the most of the few clues he finds.

Quote:
"It must have been a crime of passion....That girl was a really fast one. She was always hanging around the dance-hall at the far end of the harbour."  "Well, that makes it different," murmured Madame Mosselet, who seemed to think that if passion was involved the whole thing was natural. (p. 120)

Murder in the Dark (1949) by Pentecost takes its name from the unusual diamond-buying procedure described in the story. Buying "in the dark" involves a diamond broker obtaining an allotment of rough diamonds with a set amount of carats and agreed upon types [there are various types of rough diamonds] but without seeing the actual stones. The sealed packet is then sold to a customer who is gambling on whether the stones will cut properly and be worth what she or he paid for them...or, hopefully, worth even more. A recently wealthy man comes to New York City to buy diamonds and, being a gambler by nature, decides to buy them in the dark--but before the night is over the man is dead and the diamonds have disappeared. The story turns into a Maltese Falconish tale--with people crawling out of the woodwork looking to find those diamonds. It's up to Lieutenant Pascal to figure out who thought the stones worth killing for and where those gems might be. Fairly good story albeit with one of the main suspects running in and out of the police investigation in a rather improbable way.

Overall, a good collection of mysteries. My favorite is the Westlake story with McBain and Pentecost close behind. Simenon's Maigret continues to fail to interest me greatly--although I must say that prefer this short story to the novels I've read so far. ★★

This fulfills the "Professional Detective" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.