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Review Round-up: Planes, Fruit, Rags and Lions

Four oldish treats from the 1950s and 1960s. I suppose they're all sort of joined up by being "thrillers" in unconventional settings. But that's pretty spurious - they're really joined up by being four books that caught my eye recently; there's not much more pattern than that.

High CitadelHigh Citadel (1965), by Desmond Bagley, is a nice combination of survivalist horror and siege-porn. A small plane carrying a motley group of passengers is hijacked, and makes a crash-landing in the Andes. It turns out one of the passengers is politically important (the ex-President of a mythical South American country) and a group of Communist insurgents are keen to see him disposed of and out of the way.

But the Commies didn't count on American derring-do! The plane's captain, a former POW in Korea, shrugs off his burgeoning alcoholism and assembles the remaining passengers into a rag-tag group of freedom fighters. It is more fun (and less preachy) than it seems, as the team defend their mountain perch with a combination of medieval and jury-rigged weapons. And, in parallel, others try the murderous march over the mountains to get help - but with almost no supplies.

Although it tries, this isn't exactly a soaring novel of human triumph - the characters are mostly one-dimensional and the situation escalates far past the ability to suspend disbelief. But the detail is enjoyable, in a Robinson Crusoe Goes to War kind of way.

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Zot! The Complete Black & White Collection by Scott McCloud

Cogolj3cB8gXEthAl52IhcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az0QlsOj5uNIjDVK!VrUaAbeWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuThe first two-thirds of Zot! (1987 - 1991) are certainly enjoyable enough. Scott McCloud creates a fun, thoughtful, and zany superhero pastiche featuring the invulnerable teenaged Zot and his Earth-pal, Jenny.

Zot fights surreal foes who are rarely menacing, except in their ability to provoke existential crises. The 'villains'  often embody abstract concepts, and rare do little more than rant and, er, make art. These portion of Zot! are oddly charming, although not spectacular - perhaps because, as a superhero epic, we're expecting more in the way of action. Or, at the very least, palpable tension.

The superhero stories pick up some assistance from the notes at the end of each arc. I'm generally not so fussed about this sort of whatnot, but McCloud is nothing if not a thoughtful creator. Especially as a reader that's not familiar with art and its history, having McCloud explain his influences and ambitions was surprisingly useful. Similarly, McCloud draws thoughtful connections between Zot! and its autobiographical inspirations as well - how his personal life changed his work (and possibly vice versa).

If Zot! stopped two-thirds of the way through, it would've been an educational read, and an enjoyable one. And that's about the end of it.

But... then there's the final third of the collection, the 'Earth Stories'. Which elevates Zot! to being one of the best comics ever created.

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Tim Clare on "Odd John: Conspiracies, Utopias and the Glamour of Fascism"

Odd JohnOlaf Stapledon’s Odd John came out 80 years ago, and it’s a fascinating, troubling novel.

I first read it as part of my research for my own novel, The Honours, which is set in 1935. I wanted to find out what sort of SF people were reading that year, and I’d heard a lot about this strange, progressive, controversial story about a boy born with superhuman abilities who comes to herald a new, albeit abortive, dawn in human evolution.

What I hadn’t heard about was the weird, roiling contraflow of idealism and extremism from which the novel emerged, the secret societies and open revolutions, and the allegations of an international eugenicist conspiracy desiring nothing less than global enslavement which persist to this day. Odd John is a remarkable novel which perfectly encapsulates the strangeness, terror and optimism of an era, a work both prescient and chillingly retrograde, and one which – like all successful fiction – permits interpretations quite contrary to the author’s purported intent.

In 1928, Gollancz published H. G. Wells' book-length manifesto The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints For A World Revolution. In it, Wells argued against the dogmas of ancient religious institutions and antiquated divisive notions of patriotism, advocating a new order based around science and rationalism, brought about by informal groups of likeminded citizens coming together to move the world towards a free, equitable and unified utopia.

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Underground Reading: Twilight for the Gods and The High & The Mighty

Twilight for the GodsErnest K. Gann was kind of a badass.

Born in 1910, he was a bit of a hooligan, but reformed in military school - eventually getting in to Yale where he studied drama and got some work in the film industry. He was making a documentary in the Rhineland when Hitler invaded, and Gann narrowly escaped the Nazi troops. Back in the US, he purchased a half-share in an aircraft with Burgess Meredith (!) and got his pilot's license.

During the Depression, Gann moved to California - and then back to New York - where he provided for his family with odd jobs flying and a bit of writing on the side. When World War II broke out, Gann volunteered, and flew cargo flights in all around the world, including the dangerous (and storied) 'The Hump' airlifts into China.

After the war, he returned to the West Coast, where he continued to fly, as well as indulge his love of sailing. His family life was fraught with problems and tragedies, but by the late 1960's, he was happily remarried and living in Washington State, where he continued to write - and act as a vocal advocate for local conservation efforts. He flew his last flight in 1991 - celebrating the 50th anniversary of being a captain for American Airlines - and passed away shortly after.

Also, according to Wikipedia, despite his prolific writing output (over two dozen novels - ten of which were made into films), Gann struggled with writer's block a lot - and used to chain himself to his desk. Literally.

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Pygmalia: Watch and Ward by Henry James

This year I’m selecting twelve Pygmalion stories—or stories that contain echoes of the Pygmalion myth—and essaying on them. I already have a few in mind, but please feel free to suggest others in the comments or on twitter @molly_the_tanz. I’m woefully under-read in comics specifically, but any and all recommendations are welcome!

This month’s entry is not only our first novel, but our first audience suggestion! Back in January, BenjaminJB mentioned Henry James’ 1871 novel Watch and Ward contained a wife-training element, and boy howdy yes it does. Thanks, BenjaminJB! I think.

Like last month, Watch and Ward doesn’t directly reference the Pygmalion myth… but it is in many ways a flattering, and even romantic treatment of Thomas Day, real-life Pygmalion wannabe, so we’re going with it.

Watch and Ward (published in 1878) - Written by Henry James (later disowned by him)Watch and Ward (1871)

I’ve never read Henry James before, so Watch and Ward served as my introduction to his writing… which is interesting, because apparently James at least partially disowned this novel later in life. It does read like an early novel, and its being written for serialized publication in The Atlantic Monthly makes for a necessarily episodic feel to the action, though not in a particularly good way.

Watch and Ward is the story of Roger Lawrence, a well-to-do dandy who wants nothing more than to marry a nice lady and settle down happily. He settles his affections on a young lady, Miss Morton, even though it’s obvious she doesn’t love him, which she shows by declining his advances on several occasions. Proto-Nice Guy that Roger surely is, he tries one final time, only to depart, humiliated, after she reveals she is engaged to someone way richer (and presumably less soppy) than Roger. Nice guys finish last, am I right, my fellow MRAS? Anyways, after this Roger “would now, he declared, cast his lot with pure reason. He had tried love and faith, but they would none of him.”

It’s important to note that Roger is at this point currently staying in a hotel in town—and before he even goes out to call on Miss Morton, a seedy man in the lobby tries to touch him for one hundred dollars. When Roger declines the man’s desperate pleas, he declares if Roger doesn’t help him, he will “slit his throat.” Roger doesn’t believe the threat, and dismisses the fellow.

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Review Round-up: Wolf Winter, Day Four and Five Others

Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.

Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!

Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.

The new

WW-UKWolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something  about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.) 

Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.

The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.

(And, yes, that's the German cover. The UK and US ones are fine, but I think the German one nails it.)

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Underground Reading: Assembly by John O'Hara

AssemblyJohn O'Hara's Assembly (1961) is a collection of 26 short stories (including two novellas), all written during the summer of 1960. O'Hara is a genuinely fascinating figure in American literature: one of those quasi-commercial, quasi-literary best-selling giants that now seems, rather disappointingly, to be consigned to the second-hand shelf of history. Perhaps his two most famous works are his two earliest - Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935), both of which were turned into film (the latter earning Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar for Best Actress in 1960). But O'Hara also wrote a dozen other novels and at least that many collections of short stories. He picked up the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick and was a regular columnist for Newsday and Colliers

That said, O'Hara was also a bit of a grump. Perhaps most interestingly - and this is something shown in his stories over and over again - he was incredibly class-conscious. Although a promising student, the death of O'Hara's father left the young man unable to attend Yale. Whether intentionally or not, this disappointment is deeply embedded in his writing career: story after story about the noble 'haves' and their orbiting 'have-nots'. Like Fitzgerald, O'Hara had a knack - perhaps even an obsession -  for describing the social elite: how they waft about, seemingly immune to the problems of lesser men and women. "O’Hara kept an unrelenting fist on the most trivial signs of social differentiation", says the New York Review of Books, and much of the pathos and the subtle drama of his stories comes from his descriptions of the daily life and micro-dramas of the 'four hundred', as well as their interactions with the middle-class rung right beneath him. Later in his career, and again based on his own experiences, O'Hara brought to life the parallels between the golden gods of the Old Rich and the new pantheon created by Hollywood.

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Underground Reading: Happy New Year, Herbie by Evan Hunter

Happy New YearLike The Last SpinHappy New Year, Herbie (1965) is a collection from the versatile and multi-named Evan Hunter. However, unlike The Last Spin, this collection is less prone to wander across genres: the eleven stories contained within are all contemporary literary fiction.

The opening story, "Uncle Jimbo's Marbles", is the longest, and perhaps my favourite of the collection. A young man is convinced by his girlfriend to become a camp counselor for the summer. It is better for them to across the lake from one another at "Camp Marvin" and "Camp Lydia" than trapped in New York under the scrutiny of her disapproving father. At least, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, Marvin himself - the head honcho - has other ideas. A polio scare means that he declares 'quarantine', and the two camps are no longer allowed to come into contact (except for passed notes). As Camp Marvin goes stir crazy, a new obsession arises: marbles. Soon, it turns out that one of the counselors - Jimbo - is a marble maven, and threatens to capture all the glassy loot available. The story describes the camp's slow degeneration into madness, as marbles become objects of current, despair and, ultimately, a sort of cultish fixation. Our narrator, grounded by (what we assume is) puppy love, is the only one to keep his head - but even he can't escape his bizarrely dystopian setting.

"Uncle Jimbo's Marbles" is a coming of age story, but also one that mixes an improbable tension with a heart-warming resolution. Definitely a camp story, but one that comes equipped with some strange life lessons.

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Underground Reading: Deadly Weapon by Wade Miller

Miller-deadly-weapon-hb"Wade Miller" is the pen name of a writing partnership composed of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. The two combined to write more than thirty novels, including one that was adapted into the famed Orson Welles noir, Touch of Evil.

Deadly Weapon (1946) is their first collaboration and, as such, is a fairly promising debut. Anthony Boucher reviewed it warmly upon its release, praising the "machinegun tempo, tight writing and unexaggerated hardness". And certainly these are all true statements. However, the book also has a disappointingly random ending.

The book begins with (surprise!) a murder. A man is stabbed to death in the audience of a 'high-tone' strip show in San Diego. Also in the audience: Walter James, an Atlanta PI who was in town to find said man. When the lights come up, the action begins. Walter - ably assisted by Laura "Kevin" Lynn, a college student with the misfortunate of sitting next to the dead man - begins the case. The dead man is found with half a business card and a matchbox full of DOPE (marijuana, in 1946). Neither Walter nor the investigating police have a hard time drawing the conclusion that there's some sort of drug ring involved.

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Underground Reading: The Last Spin by Evan Hunter

The Last SpinEvan Hunter was, amongst others, Hunt Collins, John Abbott, Curt Cannon and, of course, Ed McBain. Under his real name Hunter skewed, at least in his early career, towards literary fiction, whereas his other pen names each took on other stylistic approaches.

The Last Spin (1960) is one of Hunter's more eclectic collections, spanning genres freely, but, for the most part, focusing on characters and emotional (rather than physical) challenges. The collection contains a handful of stories that have been reprinted over and over again - but also a few rarer tales. 

The opening story, "First Offence" is vintage Hunter - or McBain, even. It has a vaguely procedural format told from the point of view of a young offender, who undergoes his first night in jail and the 'line-up' the next morning. An older, wiser con tries to take the kid under his wing, but to no avail. Our narrator is, as they say, 'feeling his oats', and is determined to make the most of his experience. The reader is treated to Hunter's skill at bringing to life the gritty but inexorable process of justice, as well as the ability to craft credible, layered characters in a short space. Despite the narrator's manic confidence, there's a sense of foreboding, and the story's payoff is as just as it is depressing.

"Small Homicide" is a similar vein: a police procedural that plays it by the numbers, but is underpinned by empathy for the criminal. If "First Offence" is more successful, it is because it has slightly less overt pathos. "Kid Kill" is another story slightly undermined by the procedural structure. Similar to Bradbury's "The Small Assassin", "Kid Kill" is an uneasy balance between the plausible and the possible, and needs either more space (or less 'realism') to succeed fully.

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