Tag Archives: Edward Eager

Giant-slayers, copyright, libertarians and more: books read

I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nakamura apparently has some cult status, but it didn’t work for me at all. Protagonist Barbara believes she’s defending her small town from giants, which is stressing her to the point nobody can stand to be around her — but is it true? Or is the giant-killing a metaphor for Something Else? Like Kingdom of the Wicked I figured the answer out almost at once, and wasn’t any more interested in the results than with the previous book.

BLACK HAMMER: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and various artists is an anthology that shows the limits of the Black Hammer mythos: the core story of the series is fine but as pastiches of various heroic templates, characters such as Abe Slam, Golden Gail and Barb Alien aren’t distinctive enough in a conventional adventure. Readable, but no more than that.

THEFT: A History of Music by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins is the product of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, looking at the history of copyright in music the way their earlier Bound by Law looked at fair use. This looks at musical notation, classical composers engaging in sampling (the assumption was that you could borrow but you had to do something new with it). and the impact of tech — does listening to a phonograph record or a player piano constitute a performance? Quite informative about our view of music, originality and copyright law, including such oddities as John Fogerty getting sued for ripping himself off (his former record label unsuccessfully sued on the grounds Old Man Down the Road was too close to Fogerty’s CCR work). If you’re interested you can download Theft for free, legally.

In Edward Eager’s final book, five kids experience SEVEN DAY MAGIC when they discover their newest acquisition from the local library is a magic book that both grants wishes and becomes whatever book its wielder most desires (Eager more or less acknowledges a debt to the similarly mutating magic ring in E. Nesbit’s Magic Castle). This leads them into the early days of Oz, the sequel to Half Magic (now I know why one scene I remembered so clearly wasn’t in the original book) and join their granny in her rip-roaring youth. The ending is unintentionally sad — the kids’ confidence they’ll have another magic adventure (and all previous kids got two) means we’d have had a sequel if Eager hadn’t died a couple of years later.

A LIBERTARIAN WALKS INTO A BEAR: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling recounts how some rag-tag libertarians acted out one of the movement’s fantasies: move to a small state (or in this case a New Hampshire town) in large enough numbers to set policy, then strip away government services and let the free market take over. Countless liberal blog posts have predicted this would work out very badly, and it seems they were right: as town services dwindled away, no dynamic John Galts jumped up with a more efficient free-market solution. Roads deteriorated. Bears, already a problem in New Hampshire, swarmed in. Things got messy. Much as I take a certain schadenfreude in watching libertarian fantasies crash, the author does a good job not simply snarking at them. The cast of residents, libertarian and otherwise, a quirky, individualistic lot and Hongoltz-Hetling conveys a lot of affection for them and sympathy for their problems. He’s also clear about the state’s role — when similar bear problems hit a larger, more influential city, there was a lot more support.

SHADOW — GO MAD is, like The Shadow Strikes, a 1960s Shadow spy thriller by Dennis Lynds, but a stronger one. A series of crimes and other puzzling activities (Green Berets surrendering to the North Vietnamese for no reason) draws the Shadow’s attention. It turns out the SPECTRE-style crime ring CYPHER is using the crime wave as the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation showcasing it’s latest service, access to mind-control tech which they’ll sell to the highest bidder (they considered leasing, but decided the contracts would become too complicated). Not up to the best of Walter Gibson, but entertaining.

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Vienna, the Shadow and maybe some magic: books read

FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNA: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske looks at the Austrian capital in the late 19th century as the liberal consensus that had dominated the previous few decades began to collapse, leaving politicians, thinkers and creators looking for alternatives. Schorske writes this as a series of essays on key thinkers: architects, Freud, Zionist Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, novelists and anti-Semites, all trying to figure out what society should be doing and what their place in it was. The individual profiles are interesting, but they don’t give me a sense of the big picture.

After Walter Gibson revived the Shadow in the 1960s paperback The Return of the Shadow Dennis Lynds took over for a brief series run. In THE SHADOW STRIKES, the Master of Darkness investigates the death of a Yugoslavian immigrant working with a Communist refugee group — was it an accident? And if not, who stood to gain by it? This lacks Gibson’s spark and shows an Ian Fleming influence — international intrigue, Commies and a fairly vivid torture scene; it’s much talkier than the original pulps with the Shadow talking his theories out with others rather than plotting alone in his lair.

Edward Eager’s  THE WELL-WISHERS reunites the protagonists of Magic or Not for another round of good deeds that might or might not be helped by the wishing well, whether it’s saving a local apple orchard, battling bullies or helping a black family move into the neighborhood despite protests (it says a lot about the times that Eager avoids spelling out They’re Black, but I’d imagine even kids would figure it out). Atypical for Eager, this takes place during the school year rather than the summer (which even the kids comment on); I’m not sure why but it works much better for me than the previous book did.

A reference in the Eager book got me to look at E. Nesbit’s THE WONDERFUL GARDEN wherein three siblings spending the summer with an eccentric uncle stumble across a book of flower-based magic. When a young boy runs away from his Dickensian guardian and hides out with them, the magic seems to help — but is it just coincidence? While there are some touches that I like, this is a dull Nesbit that lacks the charm of some of her other non-fantasy stories such as The Story of the Treasure Seekers.

THE VISION AND THE SCARLET WITCH collects the miniseries by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi, which I read to tie in with Wanda/Vision, as well as the Steve Englehart/Don Heck special where the couple tied the knot. The story of Wanda and Vizh settling into the suburbs for a life as ordinary people — needless to say, it’s not as ordinary as they hope — fluctuates wildly in quality. The first issue pits the couple against a stock Evil Druid type (druids rarely come off well in comics). The second issue, dealing with Wanda’s supposed father (it’s complicated), the 1940s Whizzer, is  lot more interesting; the third, dealing with the Vision’s two sort-of siblings Wonder Man and the Grim Reaper much less so. The fourth, in which Wanda learns the truth of her relationship with Magneto (before Marvel retconned that out), is back to good. The Englehart story is great, but as the climax of a year-long story arc, I can’t imagine it makes much sense standing alone (I missed the preceding issue back in the day and I was confused by some details).

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gil Kane, bottom by Rick Leonardi. All rights remain with current holders.

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Math, mediums, scurvy and kids: books read.

I wish I’d read HIDDEN FIGURES: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly before the movie made the basic concept — that a number of black women “computers” (originally a term for human number-crunchers) helped plot the necessary math for the space program — familiar to me. That said the details are quite interesting, going back to WW II and the military’s need for computers to help figure out the complexities of air flow and pressure in aeronautical engineering. Black women with math skills had no future outside teaching, so they seized the opportunity as a better-paid, more challenging alternative. When Sputnik made the space race a priority, many of the women jumped to NASA (I’d never realized how much precise calculation is involved in sending a capsule into orbit and landing it in the right spot in the ocean), culminating in math whiz Katherine Johnson helping review the computer calculations for Apollo 11. This an interesting slice of history, including the always amusing tech details of ancient computer tech (high-speed data transmission of 1 kilobyte a second!) though it’s not exactly dramatic: the women did grapple with sexism and racism but they didn’t have the kind of turning points that make for a character arc (that is not the book’s fault, of course).

In the opening of Walter Gibson’s THE GHOST MAKERS a seance for wealthy patrons goes wrong when someone ends up stabbed; Det. Cardona suspects the killer was anything but a spirit, but which of the attendees did it? Fortunately the Shadow is on the case, which turns out to involve a network of phony mediums pooling their resources to pull off bigger scams, like having multiple suckers invest in the same crap stock. A couple of years after Gangdom’s Doom assured us the Shadow doesn’t kill and he’s still not as murderous as I envision him, frequently shooting guns out of hands rather than killing crooks. This is a solid series entry; there’s at least one more ghost-busting tale in the series, House of Ghosts.

While Scott and Amundsen taught me scurvy was an ugly disease, I had no idea until reading SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, by Stephen R. Bown how nightmarish it was. Because the loss of vitamin C affected collagen, for instance, broken bones that had previous healed would suddenly un-knit in serious scurvy cases. This had disastrous effects on the British navy in an age when shipboard conditions could weaken even strong, healthy men but the admiralty stubbornly resisted treating seamen as anything but cannon fodder; the medical profession’s antiquated view of how disease worked made it next to impossible to think coherently about the problem. Ship’s surgeon James Lind and Captain Cook saw the light but couldn’t dent official dogma, so it was left to physician Gilbert Blane, who had not only good research but good social connections, to win the fight. A good medical history.

I presume the protagonists of Edward Eager’s MAGIC OR NOT mentioning Half Magic as a favorite book of theirs is meant to signal the new story is not in that continuity. In contrast to the blatant magic of the first four books, here the wishing well they’re using to help people is so subtle they wind up wondering if it was their imagination. Probably not (as they point out that would take every adult in town being in on fooling them), but this remains a fairly ordinary children’s adventure, not up to the earlier tales.

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Swashbucklers, past and future, plus other books I’ve read

After watching The Sea Hawk back in February, I decided to reread its source, Rafael Sabatini’s novel THE SEA HAWK (yes, it took a while). I was pleasantly surprised to find it as much fun as I remembered: Elizabethan protagonist Sir Oliver saves his brother Lionel from a murder rap only to have the spineless youth realize framing Oliver for the crime would be even safer; to top it off, he pays a sea captain to have Oliver “trepanned” (shanghaid) and sold off as a galley slave, after which Lionel will pretend Oliver fled rather than face justice.

Fast-forward several years and Oliver is now Sakh el Bahr, the Sea Hawk, a legend among the Barbary pirates. When he learns from a captive that Lionel is marrying Oliver’s faithless fiancee, the Sea Hawk heads back to England to settle some scores … This was a solid swashbuckler with decent characterization and avoids making the Muslim supporting characters into devils. And unlike the film, nobody has to get into brownface to play the Arabs.

THE STAR KINGS has John Gordon, a WW II vet, agree to change minds with Zarth Arn, a prince from a galactic empire 200,000 years in the future. It’s only supposed to be temporary, but when the League of Dark Worlds begins its attack on the peaceful interstellar worlds, the prince’s father has “Zarth Arn” yanked out of his lab before the return switch. Now Gordon has a pivotal role in a fight he can barely understand, with incredibly advanced technology, and a romantic triangle to cope with to boot. This is a fun adventure, and the amoral, manipulative Shorr Kan is a remarkably likable villain. It does show its age in that while there’s a lot of advanced energy powers allowing for FTL communication and travel, the tech uses vacuum tubes.

The Shadow novel GANGDOM’S DOOM by Walter Gibson starts off with a bang when Claude Fellows — introduced as one of the Shadow’s agents in the first of the series — visits Chicago to help a witness turn state’s evidence, only to die in a hail of machine-gun fire. That, of course, brings the Shadow into the picture, but the results are a little too stock — you could replace the Shadow with a G-Man and not have it change much. Like The Shadow Laughs, this reuses crooks from an earlier story; statements that the Shadow never kills his enemies show Gibson was still working his mythos out (that certainly wouldn’t stay true). Competent, but not a standout.

Edward Eager’s TIME GARDEN has the kids from Knight’s Castle preparing for a dull summer at a seaside mansion where obviously no magic is going to find them. Then they meet a talking Natterjack which reveals the mansion’s thyme garden is yes, a time garden, allowing them adventures on the Underground Railroad, in the story of Little Women and to meet their parents as kids (a scene we already saw from the parents’ perspective in Half-Magic). Eager’s writing style is charming and his kids are fun, but as the kids themselves complain, adventures in history aren’t as exciting as the more outrageous exploits of the earlier books.

I picked up BREAKING BREADS: A New World of Israeli Baking — Flatbreads, Stuffed Breads, Challahs, Cookies and the Legendary Chocolate Babka by Uri Scheft from the library when it turned up in the same title search as Breaking Bread. Unfortunately it’s not very useful: Scheft is all about using a dough mixer and I don’t think I can translate “one minute on slow, two minutes on high speed” into hand-kneading. However it was fun to read about babkas, burekas and other popular breads of Israel.

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From Radio to Ivanhoe: books read

SAME TIME, SAME CHANNEL: An A-to-Z Guide to Radio from Jack Benny to Howard Stern by Ron Lackmann disappointed the heck out of me. Lackmann has relatively little to say about the plots or characters of the various shows, instead focusing on rattling off the cast lists, sponsors and networks (in fairness, this was apparently tough stuff to figure out when this book came out in the 1990s). It’s also sloppily edited — the Kaye, Danny entry says to see Danny Kaye Show, which doesn’t have an entry — and with a few too many errors (the Fu Manchu movie serial was Drums of Fu Manchu, not Shadow of).

THE BLIND SPOT by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint worked better for me than when I read it in college, but ultimately it still fails. A philosopher announces his next lecture will shatter the “blind spot” that makes us think the occult is beyond scientific understanding. After he vanishes in the company of the mysterious Ramda Avec, the protagonists search a mysterious, spooky old house for answers and discover ties to a magical world. This part is readable, though slow, but when we cross through the house to a parallel world, it becomes a complete slog to get through. The focus shifts to a minor and uninteresting supporting character and the setting is a third-rate Edgar Rice Burroughs Lost Race story when what’s needed is an A. Merritt-class exotic world. The Virgil Finlay cover is too good for the work it depicts.

I checked out THE BEST OF RICHARD MATHESON from the library to see if the source story for The Stranger Within was included; it wasn’t, but as I’m a Matheson fan I read it through anyway, though skipping the stories I already have. A vampire plans his own funeral. A janitor becomes a genius. A woman fights the killer doll stalking through her apartment (that one I did reread). Some of the stories didn’t work, but overall most satisfactory.

Edward Eager’s KNIGHT’S CASTLE has the next generation of the family in Half Magic and Magic By the Lake get their own adventure when magic sucks them into a castle playset to keep re-enacting messed-up versions of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: knights in the 20th century, battles with angry dolls and having Prince John turn into a parody of Stalin (“No one can get past this iron curtain!”). Not up to the first two books but still charming; like so many Ivanhoe riffs, this has the hero and Rebecca wind up together (it’s the unanimous opinion of Scott fans that she’s way more interesting than the romantic lead Rowena).

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Magic, more magic and then the end: books read

LORE OF THE WITCH WORLD is a collection of short stories from various anthologies so they’re almost all stand-alones; “Sword of Unbelief”brings back Elys and Jervon from Spell of the Witch World and “Toads of Grimmerdale” got a sequel written especially for this volume. The character dynamic is familiar from earlier Witch World books (outcast woman paired up with not-quite-as-outcast man) and the stories are enjoyable, more so for being slightly outside the core story arcs. That makes the Witch World a place where anyone can have amazing adventures, not just the Tregarths or Kerovan (of Crystal Gryphon). Good if you’re into Norton.

MAGIC BY THE LAKE brings back the family from Edward Eager’s Half Magic, now vacationing at a lakeside cottage with their new stepfather when they accidentally make a wish that turns the entire lake to magic. Before long they’re dealing with pirates, mermaids, teenage Romeos, the Forty Thieves and hungry cannibals (unpleasantly racist characters, but watching them see through the kids’ efforts to impress them with modern technology is pretty funny). This was even more in the style of E. Nesbit than the previous book, with the grumpy turtle assisting the kids very much in the mold of Nesbit’s magical mentors. Rereading these is proving a good decision.

THE MIGHTY SWORDSMEN was a 1970 anthology of sword and sorcery ranging from very good (one of John Brunner’s Traveler in Black tales and Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River,”) to the mediocre, in the form of a non-Howard Conan yarn  by Bjorn Nyberg and one of Lin Carter’s Thongor stories. While it wouldn’t have bothered me at the time, the heroes are all men and the cast mostly so; the women who do get noticeable roles are smothered by sexism (why is the hot girl penetrating a forbidden castle to find her brother foolish while Thongor doing the same from curiosity is heroid?).

WORLD OF TROUBLE: The Last Policeman Book III follows Countdown City to wrap up Ben Winters’ trilogy. At the end of the last book, Hank had settled in with his new girlfriend to spend the end of the world in comfort. Now, though, he heads out to find his missing sister: has her secret organization found a way to avert the asteroid impact after all? If not, just what are they up to? It turns out things have not being going well to Nora, pushing Hank back into cop mode. With only a few days to the impact though, can he get to the bottom of things? A downbeat but satisfactory finish.

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Hollywood, half magic and geopolitics: books read

THE RKO STORY by Richard B. Jewell is one of a series of coffee-table studio histories that came out several decades ago, giving the behind-the-scenes stuff along with a year-by-year, film-by-film account of production. Those films includes King Kong, Bringing up Baby, The Best Years of Lives and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, along with the Saint film series and far more forgettable series (comic duo Wheeler and Woolsey, Dr. Christian and the homespun philosopher Scattergood). Behind the scenes was constant turmoil with studio and production heads moving in and out, then Howard Hughes taking over the studio. This proved a disaster as Hughes demanded absolute micromanagement of everything but was never available when a quick decision had to be made, leading to RKO expiring in the 1950s. A fun book to browse, and easier if I were doing research than trying to work through IMDB or Wikipedia.

VISIONS OF THE MAID: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture by Robin Blaetz is more limited than I expected, with a focus on the 20th century from WW I through the 1950s; Blaetz’ interest is how America handled the iconography of a woman warrior in a time when women weren’t supposed to be fighters (she does discuss movies up through the end of the century and the appendix looks at the previous several centuries of Joan’s legend). In WW I Joan was held up as a symbol of patriotism and heroic self-sacrifice, but as women exerted more independence in the world she became a warning against female independence or a vague template for movies such as Joan of Paris and Joan of Arkansas. Blaetz does a good job showing how Joan’s remarkable life story makes it possible to celebrate her as Catholic martyr, anti-Catholic rebel, anti-English martyr French national icon, delusional lunatic, mighty hero and naive innocent. Interesting.

HALF-MAGIC was the first of seven delightful children’s fantasies by Edward Eager, writing in the 1950s in the spirit of the British writer E. Nesbit (whom the children mention as a favorite in an early chapter). Four kids in the 1920s discover a magical wishing talisman which grants half of anything you ask for: they wish for the cat to talk but it babbles nonsense, they wish to visit a desert island and end up in the desert, etc. Despite which everything works out well for them and their widowed mother in a tale as charming as I remember it (though the stereotypical Evil Arab in one scene I could have done without).

PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall was a local book clubs selection for September, explaining how geopolitics is really just geography: Russia is aggressively expansionist to shore up the weak spot in the terrain walling it off, China covets Tibet as a vulnerable spot, American geography makes it natural to build one nation where European natural features made them fragmented. Unfortunately I don’t think this makes a lick of sense; if the U.S. is one nation because of geography, why didn’t it have the same effect of uniting the hundreds of Native tribes? Why does Marshall spend so much time covering religion in the Middle East, or China’s aggressive military posture, neither of which really relate to the topic? A waste of time that I wound up skimming in several spots.

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