Category Archives: Reading

The Witch World and Beanworld, plus the world’s most famous Kurd: books read

In her Witch World books Norton has always been keen on female characters charting their own paths, which makes the sexism of HORN CROWN an unpleasant surprise. The book opens with humans arriving in the empty land (the Dales, the setting of her past few books) after fleeing their own world for unknown reasons (there’s been some mindwiping). Despite being The Early Years it’s really just like the Waste or Estcore in earlier Witch World books, a seemingly empty land stuffed full of evil places and wouldn’t you know, the dumb new arrivals start stirring the dark powers back to life. When a chieftain’s daughter, Iwynne, unwittingly taps into the power of an ancient shrine and vanishes, the warrior Elron sets out to find her. So does Gathea, a witch frustrated that Iwynne has stolen the power Gathea thought would be hers.

While the book is well-done and some of the magical scenes have real power, Gathea is a flaw. Like witches in past books she’s dead set on her course to the point of being a complete jerk about it. Instead of respecting her quest or having Gathea develop a connection with Elron and try to balance love and magic, the ending has Gathea having to put her own goals on hold so that she can be Elron’s wife and mother to his child. It comes across more coercive than romantic (as Judith Tarr says, we get the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad but  the Mother is the only acceptable role model). I enjoyed the book even so, but YMMV.

After the material in the first Beanworld Omnibus, Larry Marder’s series went on a long hiatus due to publisher Eclipse Comics closing, then taking other jobs for a couple of decades. The three graphic novels he eventually wrote to follow up are collected in BEANWORLD OMNIBUS Vol. 2. The baby beans introduced in the first volume are growing up and figuring out their destiny; Beamish continues his pursuit of Dreamish; and the other denizens of Beanworld engage in their own adventures. As quirky and unique as the first collection (and just as hard to synopsize), which makes me regret we haven’t seen anything from Marder since 2017. I hope there’s more soon.

THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF THE SULTAN SALADIN by Jonathan Phillips is an excellent book on one of those figures I knew of but not about. As Phillips details, Yusuf Salah al-Din rose to leadership as an ally of Nur-al-Din, leader of the powerful Zengi clan but after replacing his relative as vizier of Egypt decided to assert his independence (and that of his own clan), eventually building enough power that he could take on the Frankish occupiers of Jerusalem; part of Saladin’s fame is that he managed to unite the many factions of the Middle East (divided by sect, ethnicity, clan and personal ambition) and make fighting the crusaders a holy war rather than a war for territory.

Phillips shows how Saladin’s history mixed great successes (retaking Jerusalem) with dismal failures (the siege of Acre) and great mercy with occasional acts of brutality, but maintaining power throughout by diplomacy and financial largesse. This helped build his legend in the West, where the image of him as the Satan Spawn Who Took Jerusalem From Us was gradually overwhelmed by his obvious qualifications as a chivalric knight. This made him a fit subject for fiction, where he could be the mighty adversary Crusader heroes such as Richard the Lionheart required for their adventures (to say nothing of stories about Saladin’s secret and entirely fictitious love affair with Eleanor of Aquitaine)! In the Middle East, Saladin has been invoked as a symbol by everyone from Bin Laden to Gamel Abdel Nasser, being usable as a model of Kurdish independence, opposition to Western imperialism or pan-Arabism. A very good book.

#SFWApro. Covers by Michael Whelan (top) and Larry Marder, all rights remain with current holders.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Holmes quote on my mug says that it’s a mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (though Holmes did that quite a bit), but I think his reason why is much more applicable to writers. In fiction it’s perfectly fine to theorize about your story (plot, character, twists) before you write it. The trouble comes when what we have in mind doesn’t work for the story on the page, but we don’t admit it.

Case in point, my original concept for No One Can Slay Her was set in the 1930s. Jenny was harboiled instead of aristocratic; her wife was a Nisei instead of a beatnik; the opening of the story involved a foreign agent putting her under a sleeping beauty-type spell.

Trouble was, as I fleshed out the main concept it didn’t hold up. The rationale for the spy enchanting Kate didn’t make sense, neither did Jenny’s response. Even after I changed the characters to their current, 1950s versions, the villain’s scheme still seemed pointlessly convoluted. So I rewrote pretty much the entire plot until it worked.

The alternative is to twist your story or your characters to suit your concept. One of the things I hated about Lost was that maintaining the mystery required massive amounts of idiot plot: Locke makes a cryptic comment about what the island wants, everyone looks thoughtful but nobody ever grills him about what, exactly he knows or intuits. In the mystery novel Have His Carcass the murderer’s plot is absurdly complicated because that’s the only way Sayers’ can justify her opening, in which Harriet Vane finds a fresh-bleeding corpse on a beach at low tide with nary a footprint around it.

Avoiding twisting can require changing the original concept, but it may be your characters or your story has to change. Every cozy mystery is built around the concept of an amateur detective investigating a mystery; as mystery novelist Barbara Ross says, that requires giving your protagonist a very good reason for investigating instead of leaving it to the cops. If you don’t have a good reason (and some novels don’t) you can’t drop the murder investigation so you have to change your character or your plot to provide one.

I had the same problem, as I’ve mentioned before, with Southern Discomfort. My protagonist Maria really didn’t have a good reason to help Olwen McAlister avenge her husband’s death, and I kept trying to find one that would make her stick around Pharisee and fight. Turns out there wasn’t, so I had her do what most normal people would do when threatened by a supernatural killer: run. Only it turns out this isn’t an option … This makes Maria considerably less heroic than I wanted, but there’s no way around it.

#SFWApro. All rights to mug image remain with current holders.

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Comics covers for Sunday

Normally I’d have written a book review post for today, but Trixie’s leg problems have thrown me off schedule. So covers it is.

I love this Joe Sinott cover.The classic actor’s nightmare is being on stage with no idea what your lines or even what the play is. Here’s a somewhat less common nightmare, captured by Jack Kirby.

Russ Heath does a great cover for a Sgt. Rock spotlight.Here’s another war comics cover by Joe Kubert.Mort Meskin gives new meaning to the phrase “bargaining chip.”Bob Brown’s monster on this cover looks more like a kiddie amusement park ride than a threat.Dick Dillin’s monster here clearly disapproves of the men violating social distancing.Dillin also provides the cover for this story in the “Screw your superstitions I’m going to do exactly what you said would doom me!” genre. I like the title too, it has a great rhythm and the right level of alliteration.

And here Carmine Infantino gives us a guy whose quarantine is more extreme than planned.

#SFWApro. rights to all covers remain with current holder.

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Assorted writing, art, publishing and music-related links

The book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was a Christian-publishing sensation. Turns out it was a lie.

The movie 9 to 5 in which three secretaries take over the office ends with a better workplace than most people have today.

How book clubs helped sustain the British in World War II. And libraries have resources we can access even in a pandemic.

As the pandemic drives away museum visitors, some are loosening the rules on selling art.

From Atlas Obscura, appropriately, an article on fictional maps.

Merck Mercuriadis is out to own all the hit songs — not the recordings, but the rights to the lyrics.

With a captive audience for online journalism, what is the media’s responsibility?

Speaking of online journalism, Slate does an outstanding job going over old records and papers and concluding Trump unsurprisingly exaggerated his baseball skills.

Want to self-publish your racist, anti-Semitic tract? Hate groups are doing it on Amazon.

Land o’ Lakes has dropped the Native American image from its butter packaging.

What do famous people have on their bookshelves?

Indie bookstores are flourishing during the pandemic.

Why do maps and globes show north is up?

A writer argues for Professor X as a great disabled character who’s been demolished over time.

I am so surprised that online misogynists can’t stomach a book that fights back against victim blaming.

Naturally the focus of a Bruce Lee biopic should be on his white friend … wait, what?

Just what does the Internet Archive do with our books?

The trademark-troubled world of print-on-demand T-shirts and other merchandise.

Nine awesome libraries from around the world.

Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation.

Hearst Corp. tried to block its writers from unionizing. The conservative-dominated NLRB found Hearst’s arguments so inept it kicked them to the curb.

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Cover up!

Norman Saunders show us how to respond to people who want to break social distancing!This Saunders cover has Weena of the Eloi more formally dressed than I think Wells imagined her.An Earle Bergey cover with one of his more reasonable female outfits.With that title and this Mark Mariano cover, I’d be tempted to buy the book on the spot.The breast cones below are more typical of Earle Bergey’s fashion sense.I knew pulps covered every kind of fiction but it tickles me they had a magazine of railroad stories. Cover by Hilliker.A beautiful wanton in a bathing suit! Sexy cover by the standards of the past, courtesy of Barye Phillips.Nothing says “old school pulp cover” like a woman arising out of a space cyclone to zap spaceships with lightning. This one’s by Lawrence.Is this woman really upset about the spaceship — or is it the man breaching social distancing? Art by Earle Bergey#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holders.


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Heroic ages begin with this week’s reading!

NEW FRONTIER was Darwyn Cooke’s reinterpretation of the birth of the Silver Age, collected here in an omnibus with a bunch of special features. We open as the WW II squad known as the Losers dies on Dinosaur Island (the setting of a long-running DC war-comics series, The War That Time Forgot), then House Unamerican Activities Commitee drives the Golden Age Justice Society out of the hero business, ultimately leaving Superman standing alone (and Batman operating in the shadows). But now new heroes are appearing, ranging from a super-speedster (“You’re the Illinois Flash?”) to a Martian — how will the government cope? And what happens when the world needs heroes to stand against a new threat?

I like this better than I did first reading, but still not as much as others do. This kind of mashup isn’t new (Steve Englehart did a very good one situating the birth of the JLA against the 1950s during his time writing Justice League of America) and while the individual scenes are all good, Cooke takes a long time to get to the superheroes: we have the war comics stuff and a whole lot of pages spent on Hal Jordan, Korean War veteran, borderline pacifist, test pilot before he even gets into the ring. Reading the end notes I realize this is because Cooke grew up more into war comics than superheroes, hence his emphasis on non-costume Hal and his relationship with other pilots of various eras (Rick Flagg, the hardcase Patton-type, Ace Morgan a moderate and Hal as the kind of liberal who might have joined John Kerry protesting the Vietnam War). But even understanding the reason, I still feel it takes too long to get to the good stuff, but YMMV.

FACE THE CHANGE is Samantha Bryant’s third Menopausal Superheroes book (following Going Through the Change and Change of Life (which I thought I reviewed, but can’t find the link) and it feels like the wrap up of the origin arc, setting the stage for future adventures. In the first book, four women discover the hot-flash treatments they’ve been taken have endowed them with superpowers, not entirely welcome (one woman gets gender-flipped, another “hulks out” when enraged). In the second book, as they hunt the scientist responsible, they met the shadowy “Department” that like the DEO deals with superhumans and has a few of its own.

In V3, former mad scientist Cindy has been deaged to a teenage girl, trying to resume her weird-science career while caring for her obnoxious but injured father. Several of the cast become full-on superheroes and just in time, as a mind-controlling team of villains is taking over their town. This manages to balance the women’s strange experiences and personal drama with the action and the running plots well, and it ends feeling very much as if this fictional world’s age of heroes is starting. I look forward to book four (and in the meantime there’s a retcon novella, Friend or Foe). Samantha’s a friend of mine, but my review is honest.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Darwyn Cooke, don’t know the second artist. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Mundane of Bronze: Doc Savage in Disappearing Lady, Target for Death and Death Lady

This month’s trio are all by William Bogart, but mercifully cut back on the travel-brochure description he used in Fire and Ice and Death in Little Houses. That doesn’t mean they’re good: they very much treat Doc as a generic PI type, and don’t stand out as examples of the pulp gumshoe either.

THE DISAPPEARING LADY starts with Doc visiting banker Ernest Green whose ex-wife is blackmailing him over “one of those affairs while I was in my last year at Harvard. Every college student has one sooner or later.” I’ve no idea what that means — illegitimate pregnancy? A homosexual encounter? Plain vanilla sex? Bogart writing badly? — as it has to be serious enough to ruin Green if he’s exposed. Doc, in any case, says this is a job suited to a competent PI and declines. Then two of Green’s clients turn out to be imposters, kidnap him and kill the guard. Now Doc’s all in.

He should have stayed out. This is such a routine detective story I find myself wondering if Bogart just recycled some unused fiction he had lying around. If so he needed to do better: this has Doc packing heat as casually as any hardboiled gumshoe, without even an acknowledgment it’s not his style. There’s also an interminable stretch where he’s tracking the kidnappers’ car and we get the law-enforcement equivalent of Trek technobabble as the police coordinate their operations to pin down its locations.

Unsurprisingly the obvious suspect, Green’s ex — the disappearing lady of the title — turns out to be a red herring and the real villain is (drumroll please!) the last person you’d expect (though I wasn’t actually surprised). This is a rock bottom entry in the series, even though Savage expert Bobb Cotter disagrees.

TARGET FOR DEATH — as Cotter says, if Doc was still under his old editor, we probably wouldn’t have three similar-sounding titles in a row — has a stronger start, at least. Lt. Sally Treat, ex-Navy nurse, arrives in Honolulu to meet up with her boyfriend, Capt. Rick Randall. But Rick’s not there — we learn later he’s been lured to the mainland with a fake message — and she gets a seemingly ordinary letter from one of her relatives, warning her under no circumstances to let anyone else see the missive. It soon becomes obvious someone really, really wants that letter; fortunately Pat Savage is in Hawaii, so Sally contacts Pat, who puts her in contact with Rennie (sloppily identified as “Henry Renwick) who then sends Pat back to the Big Apple. Annoyingly, she goes without a peep or putting up much resistance. Doc, Monk and Ham are soon on the case but after the interesting beginning it shrinks to some mundane snooping around the Treat family. Doc figures out, much too slowly, that the secret of the letter is that one of the periods is a microdot (a new concept then, but Doc used to be on top of that stuff). It’s a map to a Pacific gold mine that the Japanese forces flooded with water so that nobody else could find it. One of Sally’s relatives discovered it, one of the others is ready to kill for it.

THE DEATH LADY starts off with a lost race element, though I knew that by this point we wouldn’t get anything terribly exotic or out of the ordinary. Long Tom contacts Monk and Ham to say he’s arriving in New York from South America with “an Indian” (unlike some Native Americans in recent stories, not at all educated and speaking in pidgin). Someone tries to whack said native upon arrival but the guys thwart that. Long Tom reveals that the native, “Beaverbrook” — Long Tom says that’s what the man’s name sounds like to him — can lead them to Gloria Halliday, a young woman who vanished several years ago with her explorer father. Beaverbrook’s tribe is treating her as a white jungle goddess (or as my friend Ross says, a Non-Native Rain Forest Authority Figure), but within a couple of months her divine reign expires and she’ll be sacrificed. Shortly after they connect with the Halliday family, someone kills Beaverbrook and the family’s black houseboy, Sam, runs off in the best “superstitious darkie” manner and out of the story (he seems to be in it purely for rather racist comic relief).

Doc and his team join forces with Mary English, world-class private investigator and stunning beauty. Traveling to South America under cover, Doc has to pretend to be married to Mary; while this leads to the kind of awkward comedy I enjoyed in The Freckled Shark, I just couldn’t get into it here (in fairness, I was sour from the two previous books so it may not be Bogart’s fault). Like The Men Vanished, it turns out the quest is a scam, though a different one, recycling a staple plot from White Jungle Goddess movie serials: the bad guys plan to kill Halliday, then pass off a different woman as the heir to the Halliday fortune. It makes for a stronger book than Bogart’s previous two, but not strong enough for me.

#SFWApro. Covers by Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holder.

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Gryphons, stock speculation and a hellcat! This week’s reading.

GRYPHON IN GLORY is Andre Norton’s follow-up to The Crystal Gryphon wherein Kerovan, having won Joisan’s heart in the first book, decides he doesn’t want it. Or more truthfully he does want it, but he doesn’t want Joisan shackled to a freak such as himself (a standard disability cliche). So when Lord Imgry (who first appeared in the chronologically later Year of the Unicorn) needs someone to enter the Waste that borders the Dales and seek mystical help against the invaders, Kerovan volunteers. Too bad for his plans Joisan is determined to get him back and rides after him.

This is very much a crossover book. We have the Were-Riders from Year of the Unicorn, plus Elys and Jervon from Spell of the Witch World who gives both Kerovan and Joisan an example of mismatched outcasts who’ve become a couple. The Dales setting is looking more and more like Estcarp: the Waste, like Estcore, is pocketed with powers of light and dark who’ve retreated from the world but can easily be stirred up again. The invaders from Alizon are definitely backed by the Kolder, who are seeking their own allies or tools in the Waste. On top of which the subterranean Thals (featured prominently in Sorcerer of the Witch World) show up this side of the ocean. It feels very much like having wrapped up Estcore’s struggles in Sorceress of the Witch World, Norton’s giving herself a do-over — but it works. Better than the previous installment, in fact, as the magic, while pushing Kerovan and Joisan around, leaves them room to decide their own fate at the climax.

DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor does a great job with the topic, starting with what, exactly makes speculation different from investment, or from gambling (Chancellor’s view is that it’s much closer to the latter). Chancellor looks at the famous bubbles of history including Tulipmania in Holland, England’s South Sea Bubble, France’s Mississippi Bubble, railroad bubbles in the U.S. and England in the 19th century (one of the books points is that shiny new tech always attracts speculators) and Japan’s 1980s speculation bubble (which I only knew about vaguely, from reading about the film Bubble Fiction for Now and Then We Time Travel). Chancellor looks at the shifting role and perceptions of speculation in between the big event; following the Crash of ’29 and the Depression, the U.S. tightly regulated and generally disapproved of it, but that faded with the “greed is good!” attitudes of the Reagan presidency. While some economists argue for a perfectly rational economy in which speculation must therefore be equally rational, Chancellor makes a good case that this view ignores reality in multiple ways. While the book came out in 1998, both the bubble and the real estate bubble of 12 years ago fit his arguments perfectly. Very good.

PATSY WALKER, A.K.A. HELLCAT: Hooked on a Feeling by Kate Leth and Brittney Williams is the first TPB of a now-ended series. Patsy Walker was Marvel’s A-lister in the 1950s, a female Archie-type teen whose adventures sold well until the mid-1960s; Steve Englehart then turned her into the superhero Hellcat in his run on Marvel’s Avengers. In this incarnation, she’s somewhat burned out on superheroics and hoping to put together a temp agency providing gigs for metahumans who similarly don’t want to participate in clashes of titans. Unfortunately the Asgardian sorceress Casiolena is trying to recruit the same sort of folks for her evil plans — and meanwhile Patsy’s former bestie, Hedy, is exploiting the rights to the Patsy Walker comic books (which exist within the Marvel Universe too). The results got overly cute at times, but by the end it won me over.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Lawrence Schwinger, bottom by Brittney Williams.

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Paperback and pulp covers

Jeff Jones does a very Frazetta cover for this book. But with no enemy in sight, who’s the hero going to slice? His woman?Lawrence Stevens provides this one.One by Matt Fox —

One by Leo Morey—

A Powers cover, as usual.A really eye-catching one by Robert Gibson JonesThis one by Hubert Rogers is simple, but it works.Here’s another one by Rogers.And a Steranko paperback pulp reprint.#SFWApro. Rights to covers remain with current holders.

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Grimdark with a smile: Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld

Grimdark fantasy existed long before the term; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is as grimdark as you can get and it’s decades old. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD, Jack Vance’s sequel to The Dying Earth, doesn’t initially read grimdark — it’s stylish, elegant and humorous — but it has a view of the world just as grim as Game of Thrones. The protagonist, Cugel the Clever, is an amoral antihero and rapist (I’ll come back to that last point) but most of the people he encounters are as greedy, corrupt and selfish as he is. Despite his nickname, Cugel isn’t all that clever;  when he thinks he’s scamming someone, his confidence in his own cunning blinds him that he’s the one being snared.

Like the first book, this is a collection of short stories, here linked by Cugel’s quest. In the opening, someone talkes Cugel into robbing Incounou, the Laughing Magician (if he’s laughing at you, you’re in for it) which doesn’t go well. Incounou extracts a promise from Cugel to hunt for one of the eponymous eyes, contact lenses that transform whatever you’re looking at into a world of beauty. Not being an idiot, the mage puts a tiny creature inside Cugel to gnaw his vitals if the thief runs off or in some fashion tries to double-deal. Then off we and Cugel go on a picaresque, black-humored journey across the dying future Earth.

This came out 16 years after the first book and Vance’s style has improved considerably. At one point a sorcerer says he can foretell Cugel’s future but it will require wrapping Cugel in the intestines of freshly killed owls, burning his little toe and dilating his nostrils to let an explorer beetle enter his body. Cugel passes. And Vance is very good on imaginary names: “The great cities Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand — all unheard of? What of the illustrious Sembers?” Exotic names, but believable ones, I think; they sound right.

The story is cynical as hell. Cugel lies, cheats and steals, and cons people with this voice of injured reason (under the circumstances, surely you can’t suggest that I pay for this meal!); his intended marks abuse him just as much. In one story he’s marked out as the sacrifice to the local bat-creatures; in another he’s tricked into serving as the town watchman (an important post) by being promised luxury, food and the woman of his choice; instead he ends up trapped in the watchtower with no luxury, crappy food and no sex. While I’m not a big fan of antiheroes — and Cugel’s the least heroic antihero I’ve read since Flashman — the results are entertaining and often funny. But then there’s the rapey stuff.

Dying Earth was sexist, but Eyes is a lot worse. In the watchman story, Cugel picks out one of the local women to be his mistress, then slowly (very slowly) realizes she’s just part of the con the town is playing on him. When he escapes, he takes her with him, rapes her and then she’s killed by a monster at the climax. In another story, Cugel’s bid to pass himself off as a rightful king fails spectacularly and he has to flee the city alongside Derwe Coreme, the former ruler. They become lovers but when Cugel needs help from a family of vagabonds they ask for his woman in return; he hands her over to be their sex slave without hesitation, then forgets about her. He has no qualms and neither does Vance seem to care about the women.

I don’t mean that this makes Vance pro-rape; he’s writing a dark, cynical story in a corrupt world so it’s not like the rape doesn’t fit the setting. Nor does Cugel show remorse about anything else. But nothing else he does is comparably vicious; okay, his revenge on Incounou might be, but that’s revenge, where his treatment of Derwe is gratuitous cruelty. And Vance treats it as no more consequential than stealing a character’s dinner in another chapter. Much as I liked the rest of the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by George Barr, bottom by Jack Gaughan; all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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