Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Recent Novels reviewed on this blog

Recent novels reviewed on this blog

My ongoing quest to offer a hint of organization to the various posts on this blog continues with a very loose category -- "recent novels". These are a set of books that definitely aren't "Old Bestsellers", nor are they really "classics" (though some might become such), and they aren't Ace Doubles. Some are SF, some are not. They're just -- fairly recent. (And there will be overlap with others of my "organization" posts!)

Four 2017 SF Novels: Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory; Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck; The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss; Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn;

In the Hall of the Martian Kings, by John Barnes;

Castle Garac, by Nicholas Monsarrat;

Pink Vodka Blues and Skinny Annie Blues, by Neal Barrett, Jr.;

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel;

The Spy in the Ointment, by Donald Westlake;

The Language Nobody Speaks, by Eugene Mirabelli;

The Man Who Got Away, by Sumner Locke Elliott;

Ares Express, by Ian McDonald;

No Score, by Lawrence Block;

The Floating Opera, by John Barth;

Hello Summer, Goodbye, by Michael G. Coney;

The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis;

The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett;

...And All the Stars a Stage, by James Blish;

Norwood, by Charles Portis;

The Walled Orchard, by Tom Holt;

Remains, by Mark Tiedemann;

Engine Summer, by John Crowley;

Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson;

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An Old Ace Double: Bow Down to Nul, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Dark Destroyers, by Manly Wade Wellman

Ace Double Reviews, 48: Bow Down to Nul, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Dark Destroyers, by Manly Wade Wellman (#D-443, 1960, $0.35)

by Rich Horton

Brian W. Aldiss, one of the greatest SF writers of them all, died August 19th this year (2017), having just turned 92. So I thought it appropriate to post my review (written some time ago) of one of his early novels that was published as half of an Ace Double.

Aldiss was born in 1925 to working class parents (his father a draper, his mother's father a builder). He was educated at Framlingham College and West Buckham School, and spent part of the Second World War in Burma. He worked at a bookseller after the War, and his first book was a lightly fictionalize account of a bookstore. He was an SF reader from an early age, and at the same time he was publishing his first mainstream book he was publishing his first SF stories in the magazines. Throughout his career he did distinguished work in SF and in mainstream fiction. I have found his work immensely enjoyable, and very varied in tone, style, subject matter, and structure. He also wrote a few memoirs, and I enjoyed the most complete of those, The Twinkling of an Eye, very much indeed.

The author of the other half of this book, Manly Wade Wellman, is less celebrated than Aldiss but still a widely respected writer. Wellman was born in Angola in 1903, and moved to the US at a young age. He was a good football player in his youth, and received a degree in Law from Columbia (his undergraduate degree was from Wichita State), but his goal was to be a writer, and in 1927 he sold his first story to Weird Tales. As this might suggest, his strongest work was in the weird fantastical mode, though he wrote SF, detective stories, comic books, and nonfiction as well. He died in 1986.

I have speculated in the past that Donald Wollheim may have occasionally paired Ace Double halves for thematic reasons. This is another such case -- both novels are about Earth under the domination of alien races. They are also both by fairly well-known, though very different, writers. Manly Wade Wellman became best known for his Appalachian fantasies, especially those about a character named "Silver John". I confess I never warmed to these (indeed, I confess that a good way to turn me off a story is to tell me it's an "Appalachian fantasy"). This novel is quite different -- but not in a good way. Aldiss of course is even better known -- an SFWA Grand Master, one of the best writers in the history of the field. Not surprisingly, this early novel is a lesser work -- though by this time Aldiss was already doing fine stuff such as Non-Stop. Bow Down to Nul is about 48,000 words, The Dark Destroyers about 36,000.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Bow Down to Nul has a slightly convoluted publishing history. It was originally a serial for New Worlds in 1960, under the title "X for Exploitation". The Ace Double is the first book publication. The Ace version is revised, though of about the same length -- there are some cuts but also some additions. By and large the two versions tell the same story. Later book publications sometimes used the much superior title The Interpreter. The later books mostly seem to have used the Ace text until the story was reprinted in The Brian Aldiss Omnibus. (Thanks to Phil Stephenson-Payne for this bibliographical information.)

The story opens with an aggrieved civil servant of the Partussian Empire complaining about how his threats to expose the corruption of a local administrator ended up in his getting fired. He sends his evidence to an incorruptible respected elder statesman back on Partussy. The statesman decides to investigate.

The planet under the rule of the corrupt administrator is of course Earth. The Partussians, called "Nuls", are three-armed, three-sexed, 10 foot tall creatures who breath hydrogen sulphide. They rule an extended empire. They look down in particular on all bipedal races, but aside from that, they are usually somewhat benevolent. But the ruler of Earth is skimming a lot of Earth's output for his own fortune, and otherwise brutally oppressing humans. Unfortunately for Earth, the two year travel time from Partussy to Earth gives Par-Chavorlem, their administrator, plenty of time to set up a sort of Potemkin Village to fool the investigator with.

The main part of the story concerns Chief Interpreter Gary Towler, one of the human liaisons with the Nuls. His job, directly working with Par-Chavorlem, lets him in for plenty of disdain from his fellow humans. He is in love with young Elizabeth Fallodon, another interpreter, but she seems a bit cool to him. However, Towler is secretly working with a rebel leader, and he agrees to reveal a crucial piece of evidence to the visiting investigator that will hopefully doom Par-Chavorlem.

However, the investigator's visit goes distressingly to the advantage of Par-Chavorlem. Towler is faced with some moral decisions: he doesn't trust the rebel leader, and he gets potentially attractive offers from various sides, but Elizabeth is finally warming to him. All leads to a curious and ironic ending. It's far from a great novel, considerably less good than for example Non-Stop, perhaps a bit too obviously a take on the British Empire. Still, not bad -- Aldiss is reliably at least interesting, at least at this stage of his career.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

The Dark Destroyers is an abridgement of an expansion of a 1938/1939 Astounding serial called "Nuisance Value". ("Nuisance Value", by the way, is also the title of a 1957 Astounding story by Eric Frank Russell, a 1975 Analog story by James White, a 1956 Authentic story by John Brunner, and a 1951 Amazing story by Walt Sheldon. I'm not aware of its use in any SF magazines not starting with the letter A.) When I say "abridgement of an expansion" I mean that in 1959 Wellman published The Dark Destroyers as a Thomas Bouregy hardcover, expanded from the serial. This 1960 Ace edition is marked "Abridged" on the cover.

The story is set some decades after Earth has been invaded by aliens called the Cold People, because they cannot tolerate high temperatures. Most humans are exterminated, but a few remain in the tropics. Mike Darragh is a young man living near the Orinoco, and when a group of local chiefs plan an attack against the Cold People, he urges that he be allowed to investigate one of their bases first. After all, human technology was hopeless against the aliens when they first invaded -- why will their reduced capabilities now do better?

Darragh bravely encounters the Cold People on a Caribbean island and mostly by luck manages to steal one of their air vehicles. He ends up flying to a Cold People dome in Chicago, where he is astonished to discover a colony of humans kept in a sort of zoo. There he tries to urge them to revolt, against the counsel of an elder who seems a bit too happy with the status quote. Fortunately, he instantly falls in love with a local girl, and naturally virtue triumphs.

A pretty minor piece of work, in other words. Not terribly plausible, not terribly interesting.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: The Lonely, by Paul Gallico

Old Bestseller Review: The Lonely, by Paul Gallico

a review by Rich Horton

When I was a teenager I read a whole lot of different stuff (still do, to be sure). One sort of thing I read was contemporary bestsellers. I read the likes of Leon Uris, Herman Wouk (who struck me then as purely a writer of popular fiction (especially with The Winds of War), but who has a somewhat higher reputation, I gather, perhaps closer to Somerset Maugham territory ("in the first rank of the second raters")), Alastair MacLean, Helen MacInnes, even once an Arthur Hailey book. And I read some Paul Gallico. Gallico didn't really have many "blockbusters" -- his only novel to make the Publishers' Weekly list of the ten bestselling novels of the year was Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris in the UK) in 1959. He also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, basis for the blockbuster movie. And his early novella The Snow Goose was and remains very popular. I read Matilda, about a boxing kangaroo, as well as a couple of the Mrs. 'Arris books, with a fair amount of enjoyment.

Gallico was born in 1897 in New York City to recent immigrants. He graduated from Columbia after serving in World War I, then turned to journalism. He made a name for himself as a sportswriter -- in a way he was George Plimpton before Plimpton: for his first big story he sparred with Jack Dempsey (and was quickly knocked out). He founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament at this time, but began selling short fiction, and in 1936 he retired from sportswriting to concentrate on fiction. (Though his first book, Farewell to Sport, was nonfiction about sportswriting and his decision to leave it, and he also wrote the book about Lou Gehrig on which the movie Pride of the Yankees was based.) He moved to England for some time, and later lived all over Europe, ending his life in France.

The Lonely is a very short novel, a little under 40,000 words. It was first published (perhaps in a shorter form) in Cosmopolitan in 1945. The book came out in 1947 in England, not until 1949 in the US. Like The Snow Goose (and to an extent his first two books of fiction, the Hiram Holliday books) it is a World War II story.

The hero is Lieutenant Jerry Wright, from Connecticut, who is at Gedsborough Air Base in England, flying bombers. He's approaching the end of his stint, but he gets grounded for a couple of weeks due to battle fatigue. Wondering what to do, one of his crewmates suggests he ask a girl to accompany him on a trip to Scotland, for some fun (of exactly the sort you might think). British girls, he is assured, understand the arrangement -- just for fun, no hard feelings when it's over. And Jerry, son of a successful banker, has his life planned -- he'll go home and into his father's business, and he'll marry the neighbor girl, tall and beautiful (but, at least in Jerry's conception, apparently sexless) Catherine Quentin, daughter of his mother's best friend.

Jerry is a bit embarrassed by this suggestion, but ends up deciding to ask a girl he's been friendly with, a WAAF who works at the base, and who thus understands the pressure they're all under. Her name is Patches (from a young mispronunciation of Patrice) and she is presented as a bit shy, not terribly pretty, and (to my mind) not the sort of girl who'd agree to Jerry's proposal (though she does have leave coming). Jerry explains about his engagement to Catherine, making it clear they have no future, and Patches agrees to accompany him on the understood terms.

Well, you see how things are. Patches is already in love with Jerry, and Jerry doesn't really realize it, but he's well on the way to being in love with her. And the trip seals things. The sex is good, true, but the shared experiences, the conversations, etc., are more important. When Patches' leave is over, they say their farewells, Jerry still convinced his future is set. And then he realizes he's made a mistake -- he needs Patches. But what about Catherine? He catches a fortunate ride on a transport one of his friends is flying back to the US, for a whirlwind visit to home. But he can't make himself see Catherine, and when he tells his parents his plan, they act rather horribly. His mother breaks down, and loads him with guilt over (really) the mess he's made of her own dreams. His father tries a more mature approach, admitting to an affair with a French girl during WWI, and assuring Jerry that his feelings for Patches are just infatuation. And he seems to have Jerry convinced.

So what happens when he returns to England, and sees Patches again? Two guesses, and the first one doesn't count! But, really, Gallico handles it all pretty well, and he sells the Jerry/Patches relationship, and Jerry's eventual decision, quite well. This is popular fiction, rather thin, really, and written in workmanlike fashion. And quite sentimental. But it's well done popular fiction, and I conclude, based on this and my memories of the other Gallico novels I've read, that he deserved his popularity.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Literary Wonder and Adventure Podcast

I should mention that Robert Zoltan (Robert Szeles) of the Literary Wonder and Adventure series of podcasts has posted the one he recorded with me: The Golden Age of Science Fiction, Part Two. (That link actually takes you to the LWA main page but you can easily find the podcast there.) It was a lot of fun to do -- we discussed, well the Golden Age of SF (and the "Silver Age" and after), and Golden Ages in general, and lots of other stuff. Hopefully it's of general interest.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

a review by Rich Horton

Back in High School I tried (probably under the influence of my good friend Bill Sather) in Japanese literature. Not a whole lot, but I know I read Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanazaki, and three novels by the 1968 Nobel Prize Winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Those three novels were Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Master of Go. (I remember looking at books by Yukio Mishima as well, but I didn't read any of them, so my exposure to his work is limited to seeing the movie version of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. As I was 16 at the time (it was the first R rated movie I remember sneaking into a theater to see) my main memories of that movie concern Sarah Miles, and one scene in particular.)

I liked the Kawabata novels, especially Snow Country, a great deal. And so when it recently occurred to me that I haven't covered all that many foreign language novels at this blog, I decided to revisit Snow Country. I ended up borrowing an omnibus edition of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes from the library in lieu of digging through my library for my old paperbacks. The two novels are very short -- Snow Country perhaps 35,000 words in this translation, Thousand Cranes more like 28,000 words. (The translations are by Edward G. Seidensticker.)

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899 to a reasonably prosperous family, but he was orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by his grandparents, who died when he was still in his teens. He went to a boarding school, and then to Tokyo University, where he studied English and Japanese literature. He soon established something of a reputation with some short fiction, and he also became editor of the university's literary magazine. After graduation he worked as a journalist, as well as starting another literary magazine, and he made a name for himself in literary circles as a somewhat experimental writer. He published a series of highly regarded novels, many of them originally published in several parts over some years. He died in 1972, possibly by suicide, though many think his death was accidental. (He died of gas inhalation.) He was fairly close to the much younger Mishima, who notoriously committed hara kiri in 1970.

Snow Country has a particularly complex publication history. It was originally assembled into a book in 1937, based on seven different stories published in five separate journals beginning in 1935. A couple further stories were published in the '40s, and the final version of the novel appeared in 1947. Shortly before his death, Kawabata published a very short condensation of the novel, "Gleanings from Snow Country", as one of his "Palm-of-the-Hand" stories, very short stories of which he wrote some 140 in his career.

Snow Country concerns a wealthy and rather idle man named Shimamura, presumably some time in the early part of the 20th Century, who comes to a hot springs town in the western part of Japan -- the "snow country" -- and becomes involved with a geisha, Komako. Komako is presented as a somewhat reluctant geisha, working, at first, just as kind of overflow substitute when there are large parties. (Geisha, I have read, were not necessarily prostitutes, but there is no question in this novel that they are, though on further reading it seems that the hot springs geisha -- "Onsen Geisha" -- were often prostitutes, while those in big cities, the higher class sort, were perhaps instead more chaste entertainers -- dancers and musicians and experts in conversation.) The relationship between the two is curious -- Shimamura seems hesitant at first, and Komako somewhat insistent on entering his room, etc. At any rate, the story continues, over a couple of years, as Shimamura seems close to Komako when he visits her town, and then leaves for months, and when he returns things go on as before. It is clear that Shimamura (a married man) feels a vague sense of obligation to Komako, and enjoys her favors, but has no notion of what he can truly be for her, or indeed how to be close to anyone. Komako herself is a sad figure, aware of her shelf life, as it were, desperate, I think, for some relationship that will give her a feeling of self worth and yet not sure what that could be, not sure she is deserving. The resolution turns on another young woman, not quite a geisha, who seems connected to a man Komako may or may not have been involved with, and who Shimamura encounters a few times in a somewhat ambiguous fashion -- at the end, there is a fire, and Komako is seen at the last with the body -- alive or dead, we don't know -- of this other woman in her arms, as Shimamura looks on unable to act.

The writing, even in translation, is lovely. Shimamura and Komako are both well-depicted, very flawed people, neither really able to find a center for their lives. Shimamura's avocation -- independently wealthy, he does not need to work -- is the appreciation of dance, particularly, in his case, Western ballet -- and not as a spectator but by reading books about it. Clearly the implication is that he can get truly close to nothing. Komako drifts as well, and she drinks too much, and she rather distractedly wavers between geisha training and helping her old music teacher and a potential relationship with another man -- she is a lost character as well. It's a determinedly sad novel, in a minor key throughout, and it's hard to explain why it's so impressive, so lovely, but it really is.

Thousand Cranes is very fine work as well. It is the story of another somewhat dilettantish man, Kikuji, and his relationship with a couple of his late father's mistresses, and one of their daughters. It is set a few years after the Second World War. It opens with Kikuji having been summoned to a tea ceremony by Kurimoto Chikako, who had been his father's mistress for a short time, and who since then had served his parents in a variety of small ways. It becomes clear that she is introducing him to a prospective wife, a beautiful young woman named Miss Inamura. But things become complicated when his father's other, more established, mistress, Mrs. Ota, invites herself and her daughter.

Kikuji has a complicated relationship with both older women -- Mrs. Ota, the widow of his father's former business partner, he resented in the traditional fashion -- as a rival to his mother. And Chikako seems a more problematic character, quite a meddler, a liar, a troublesome person in general. After the tea ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota again and somehow finds himself sleeping with her. This relationship continues for a short while, with some apparent shame on both sides, and then Mrs. Ota commits suicide. Meanwhile, he as meets the Inamura girl another time or two, with Chikako constantly warning him against Mrs. Ota -- "the witch" -- and urging him to marry Miss Inamura. But instead he falls into a hesitant relationship with Mrs. Ota's daughter, but this is poisoned as well by a certain curious sense of guilt on both sides, leading to a somewhat ambiguous but rather shocking conclusion.

The conceit of the novel is to present a series of tea ceremonies, each less formal, less impressive. Various tea bowls and other tea ware are also discussed, each with symbolic meaning in context, reflecting Kikuji's relationship with his father (a tea aficionado), and reflecting the post-War changes in Japanese society, the decline of tradition, the changes in women's roles. Kikuji himself is somewhat weak individual, seemingly not in control of his life or his passions. The women are likewise damaged, but perhaps more by the constrictions of society. It's another very fine novel, not to my taste as affecting as Snow Country, but well worth reading.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

a review by Rich Horton

I don't really think this novel was a bestseller. But it was aimed at that side of the market, no doubt. It was an historical novel, published in 1903, a time of considerable popularity for historical novels, a fashion started perhaps by a book I reviewed here some time ago: When Knighthood was in Flower, by "Edwin Caskoden" (Charles Major). That book was one of the first novels published by the Indianapolis firm of Bobbs Merrill, and the book at hand, Under the Rose, was also published by that company.

Frederic Stewart Isham (1865-1922) had a fairly successful career measured by the number of movies made from his novels and plays. Most successful was probably Nothing But the Truth, which was made into multiple movies, perhaps mostly famously a 1941 vehicle for Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, and Edward Arnold. He hasn't retained any reputation, though, and it's hard to find much hard information about him online. He was born in Detroit. He apparently wrote nonfiction about Detroit as early as 1896, but the first reference to a novel I can find is The Strollers, from 1902. Thus Under the Rose may have been his second novel.

My edition appears possibly a first. It was published in January 1903. It's illustrated, quite nicely, by Howard Chandler Christy, one of the great illustrators working at the turn of the 20th Century. Charles Dana Gibson had his "Gibson Girls", Harrison Fisher his "American Beauties", and Howard Chandler Christy his "Christy Girls". Christy is also famous for his painting "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution", for a portrait of Amelia Earhart, and for Navy recruiting posters. That said, the cover illustration for this book seems absurdly inappropriate for a novel set in 16th Century France. Indeed, to my eyes it looks more like the work of Gibson or perhaps Fisher. (The interiors are much more plausible looking for the 16th Century!)

I've previously covered, as noted, When Knighthood Was in Flower, which is set in about 1515 and concerns in part Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor's brief marriage to Louis XII of France, along with (says the novel) an attempt at her seduction by the Dauphin, who became Francis I. Francis I is a major character in Under the Rose, which is set in about 1530. (To complete the story of France in the 16th Century, I've also reviewed The Helmet of Navarre, set in 1593, and concerning Henry IV of France. who was the first of the Bourbon dynasty, though he was related to the Valois.)

Under the Rose opens among the various jesters of King Francis' court, as they welcome a guest, the jester of the Duke of Friedwald. It seems that the King's niece, Louise, has become engaged to the Duke, who is one of the leading vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. This marriage will cement an alliance between France and the Empire, which have been at war for decades. The Duke's jester quicky makes an impression, and makes an enemy of the dwarf Triboulet, who had considered himself Francis' favorite.

Soon the Duke's jester becomes a favorite of the Princess Louise, and it's clear pretty quickly that the two might be falling in love. This is an issue, of course, because Louise must marry who the King desires she marry. This also seems an issue for Jacqueline, her maid, and also a part of the "jester's court". Jacqueline is a gypsy girl, it is thought, who was found in the castle after Francis had taken possession, and sent its previous owner, the Constable Dubrois, into exile (where he soon died).

The Duke soon appears -- he's a very rough-hewn warlike man. We soon figure out -- as does the real Duke's jester -- that he is an imposter -- in fact he is the "Free Baron", Louis of Hochfels, a criminal really, who has used his position at a mountainous pass to raid all the travelers passing through, including those who have carried letters from the Duke of Friedwald to his prospective bride.

The jester and the false Duke are quickly at odds, but the jester's position is precarious. Louise is obedient to her King and agrees to marry the Duke. And the jester is soon imprisoned. What follows is an exciting rescue, spearheaded by Jacqueline, and a dangerous race through France, leading to a confrontation between Charles and the false Duke -- and to the revelation, hardly a surprise to any alert reader, of the true identities of both the jester and Jacqueline.

Much of this is ahistorical, of course, which is OK. And I've skipped a few steps of intrigue. It's really a pretty fun novel, with some nice romantic developments, and a few surprises (most of them easily enough guessed, to be sure). Though the specific events portrayed are not really true to history, the general shape of events is correct. The book takes a very negative view of Francis I, probably more negative than his accomplishments deserved. It's also written in a somewhat too modern style for my taste, though perhaps understandably so, and perhaps my revulsion at the use of the term "terrorist" for Louis of Hochfels (a term that didn't exist until the French Revolution, long after the 16th Century, and a term that has a much different connotation now than it may have had in 1903) might be a tad unfair. It's not at all a great novel, but it does what it tries to do nicely enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Children's books reviewed on this blog

This is the second post I'm making in an attempt to impose some order on the many posts I've made to this blog. In this one I'm posting links to the various "Old Bestsellers" that are actually children's books, a category which has turned into a minor subtheme here. More will be coming, soon enough, including, for example, an eventual post whenever I reread Adam of the Road, a book I loved age 10 or so, a copy of which I found at an estate sale not long ago. And many of the books reviewed here already have similar status -- or are books I'd heard of that I knew were well-remembered children's books.

Sweet William, by Margeurite Bouvet;

Three SF Novels from the Scholastic Book Club;

Penrod, by Booth Tarkington;

The Story-Teller, by Maud Lindsay;

Champion's Choice, by John R. Tunis;

Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam, Jr.;

Space Service, edited by Andre Norton;

The Light Princess and The Golden Key, by George MacDonald;

Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hacklander;

Alice Blythe, Somewhere in England, by Martha Trent;

The Space Pioneers (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure), by Carey Rockwell;

Bound to Rise, by Horatio Alger, Jr.;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Through Space to Mars, by Roy Rockwood;