Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Bondage of Ballinger, by Roswell Field



 
The Bondage of Ballinger, by Roswell Field

a review by Rich Horton

Well, I don't think this book was a bestseller. And the writer is, as far as I can tell, quite forgotten, and perhaps only ever known for having a notable father and a quite famous writer for a brother. What it is, is a book for a certain class of people ... many of whom may read this blog, or, at least, are part of what I perceive my desired audience for this blog to be. And those people are "bookmen": book collectors, indeed, as portrayed in this novel, obsessive book collectors to the point of unhealthiness.

Roswell Field's father, also named Roswell Field, was a St. Louis lawyer, and he is remembered for one earth-shaking case, the Dred Scott case: he was Scott's advocate. (So, like Clarence Darrow, he is remembered for a case he lost.) He had two sons with literary careers. By far the more famous is Eugene Field (1850-1895), still very well remembered for light verse, often for children, such as "The Duel" (aka "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat") and "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"; as well as for one short story, "Daniel and the Devil", an inspiration for Stephen Vincent Benet's much more famous "The Devil and Daniel Webster". The Eugene Field House is a minor attraction in St. Louis (where I live), though Eugene, as with his brother, later moved to Chicago. The younger brother was Roswell Field (1851-1919), who, like Eugene, attended the University of Missouri and ended up moving to Chicago.

Roswell seems to have been a quite prolific writer of books that seem, at glance, to be somewhat gloopily sentimental. Certainly "gloopily sentimental" applies to The Bondage of Ballinger. This book was published in 1903 by Fleming H. Revell, a Chicago-based firm that began as a publisher of Christian tracts. My edition, which I found at an antique mall in Springfield, IL, seems quite possibly to be a first, and it's in very fine condition, though there is no dust jacket.



The book opens with a longish history of the Ballinger family, beginning with Giles, a "staunch Puritan" who fought with Cromwell, and fled to Massachusetts after the Restoration. His descendants were for some time clergymen, and then schoolteachers, and then comes Thomas, sometime in the first half of the 19th century. Thomas is pleasant and sweet and lazy and loves nothing but books. He fails at every trade he tries except for printer. He falls in love from childhood with a Quaker girl, Hannah, and marries her despite her father's misgivings, after which they enter on a peripatetic life, Thomas finding jobs for a year or two at a time as a printer, but spending most of his money on books, especially rare books. He treasures especially books he has had personally autographed by the likes of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. He and Hannah make it all the way to California, before wandering back to Chicago, and settling permanently in a cottage on the lakeshore (apparently on the North Side).

All this time Thomas is just barely making enough to keep he and his wife provided for, but then he is enticed to quit his job and open a rare book store. This actually might have worked out well, except that he can hardly bear to sell any of his books, so he ends up mostly just buying more books and refusing to sell his treasures even when customers beg him. Clearly bankruptcy is the only future for him ... but, somewhere along the way, a chance collision with a very young girl, Helen Bascom, the only daughter of a very wealthy grocer, leads to a sort of redemption, as Helen become entranced with Thomas and his books, and Thomas, almost by accident, gives her an excellent education in literature, which proves vital when disaster looms for the Ballinger couple.

The portrayal of Thomas Ballinger and his wife Hannah is sweet but almost cruel. Field calls them "children" throughout, though the novel follows them from very young childhood to somewhere in their 60s. Hannah's sin is weakness: an inability to stand up to Thomas's refusal to properly provide for her. Thomas, though a very sweet and nice man, an enemy to no one, simply will not take any responsibility to provide for his wife. And Field makes this very clear. That their ultimate fate is happy is simply due to luck.

The book is really not very good. As I said before, it's gloopy. It is also often quite boring. The sweetness cloys, and Thomas unworldly attitude towards finance seems exaggerated to the point of caricature ... well, really, Thomas' entire character is a caricature. The resolution, with Helen prevailing on her father to secretly provide for Thomas and Hannah, is pleasant but not quite plausible. In reality, it's a minor and deservedly forgotten book.

But I'm glad I found it, for two reasons: one, the portrayal, even if exaggerated, of a breed to which I belong: book collector; and, two: the serendipitous discovery of connections to St. Louis natives of some note in Roswell Field the elder and in Eugene Field.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan


The Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan

a review by Rich Horton

John Buchan (pronounced, apparently, Bucken, instead of Bewcan as I had always thought) is primarily remembered these days for one short novel, published almost exactly a century ago (in 1915): The Thirty-Nine Steps. The book I am considering here is an omnibus (published by Houghton Mifflin) of that novel and its first two sequels, Greenmantle (1916) and Mr. Standfast (1919). The form of the book is curious: the three novels are bound together in what appear to be the original plates of the standalone books. Each novel is much longer than its predecessor: The Thirty-Nine Steps is about 35,000 words, Greenmantle about 90,000, and Mr. Standfast about 120,000. So each novel is printed in a different font: the first quite large, the second normal, and the last smallish. This particular edition seems to have been put out not long before the Second World War, probably not long before Buchan died.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1875, son of a Minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He was educated at Oxford, and entered government service upon graduation, first working in South Africa. By this time he had already published four novels. Upon his return to England he joined the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson (which eventually became the now prominent American Christian publishing firm, though not entirely directly). He also studied law and passed the bar. Buchan married in 1907. He became a Member of Parliament, served with some distinction in the First World War (though not in combat), and continued a prominent career after the war, returning to Parliament and also lecturing and otherwise maintaining involvement with several Scottish universities. In 1935 he was appointed Governor General of Canada (as a result of which he is often considered a significant figure in Canadian Literature, which seems a bit of a stretch), and at the same time he was made the First Baron Tweedsmuir. Throughout this time he continued writing, publishing some 27 novels in all. He died in 1940. Quite an impressive career, really.

The three novels in this omnibus form what could be called a World War I trilogy. The Thirty-Nine Steps is set in the early summer of 1914, in England and Scotland, in the runup to the War. Greenmantle is set in winter 1915/1916, mostly in Germany and Turkey. And Mr. Standfast covers the period from late 1917 to the middle of 1918, with major episodes in Scotland, Switzerland, and in France (during the crucial turning back of a major German offensive aimed at Amiens). All are narrated by Richard Hannay, a Scotsman who has spent much of his life in South Africa. He is a Major in the first book, a Colonel in the second, and a Major General by the end. Buchan wrote two more novels (The Island of Sheep and The Three Hostages) featuring Hannay as the main character, and he appeared in smaller roles in other works.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is easily the most famous. Hannay, at loose ends in London, encounters an odd American named Scudder who claims to have stumbled on a dangerous conspiracy aimed at murdering a Greek politician, but who is suddenly murdered, leaving Hannay as the prime suspect. Hannay flees to Scotland, partly because of hints the Scudder gave him, hoping he can track down the conspirators, even though he cannot even read Scudder's encoded journal. The bulk of the book is an extended chase scene, or series of chase scenes, quite exciting and imaginative stuff, with Hannay repeated disguising himself as character of various nationalities, and barely escaping both the police and the conspirators. He finally comes up with sufficient evidence to take to the government, and to organize an effort to capture the bad guys, the only clue being Scudder's mention of "thirty-nine steps".

This book has been treated very well in the theatre, in movies, on TV, and on radio. The most famous adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie version, one of Hitchcock's greatest early films. This starred Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll, and it differed quite significantly from the novel. The best of the other versions, to me, is a comical theatrical adaptation, first staged in 1995 and significantly revised in 2005. Its plot is a combination of Buchan's original and Hitchcock's adaptation, though it has a lot of fun throwing in references to other Hitchcock movies. I have seen a local production, and it is thoroughly delightful.

Greenmantle was published just a year after The Thirty-Nine Steps, only months after the action it depicts. Here Hannay, now serving in France and Belgium, is called back to London for a dangerous mission: it seems that the Germans are planning to use a Islamic prophet of sorts to help cause trouble in the Middle East. Hannay and three companions: his old friend from South African, Peter Pienaar; a dyspeptic American named John Blenkiron; and a fellow military man and good friend named Sandy, must find their separate ways to Istanbul, trying to figure out who this mysterious prophet might be. Again much of the novel is chase scenes, particularly in Germany, where Hannay, disguised as a disaffected Boer, manages to fool some important Germans, including a certain Colonel Stumm, and the beautiful, mysterious, and evil Hilda von Einem, into taking him part of the way to his destination, before he is discovered. In Istanbul he runs afoul of a prideful Turk, and ends up along with his friends in the middle of a pitched battle at Erzerum. (This is in fact one of the key battles of World War I.) Again, pretty exciting stuff, and Blenkiron in particular is a neat character.

Finally, in Mr. Standfast, Hannay is again unhappily taken from his command in Europe and sent to hunting spies. He begins by trying to find out who the real bad guys are in a nest of silly pacifists (to his disgust, pretending to be a pacifist himself) ... and discovers to his horror that one of them was one of the conspirators from The Thirty-Nine Steps, a master of disguise himself. Another mission to Scotland (particularly the Isle of Skye) leads him to one of the communication depots of the spies, but he is unable to get enough information to truly stop them. Meanwhile he has met and fallen for a beautiful girl, at 19 less than half his age, one Mary Lamington. The story continues to Switzerland and a reunion with Peter Pienaar, who has been crippled flying a warplane. The mission is to finally trap the master spy, with Mary as the bait ... and after than episode, we proceed to France, and a not badly done description of one of the most desperate late battles of the War. So this too is a gripping adventure story, with chase scenes and desperate escapes, masters of disguise, and even a scene where the villain gloats over the hero, and forbears to kill him, trusting that he cannot escape certain death anyway. It's also a fine love story, and a pretty good war story.

I've given these novels shortish shrift, but they are all very good fun. It should be added that Buchan had at least his share of the prejudices of the time: there is some casual anti-Semitism, the attitudes towards black people are, I suppose, what you might expect from a South African of that period, and the treatment of Germans is almost silly in its caricature. But if you can ignore that, or calibrate it to the attitudes of that day, these are three very fine adventure stories.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Forgotten SF Novel: Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman



Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman

a review by Rich Horton

Once again I haven't finished my latest true "Old Bestseller". Instead I'm covering a Young Adult science fiction novel from 1978, that is, I think it's fair to say, quite forgotten now, and was really never well known at all. But the writer was an interesting and (in a very modest way) somewhat notable writer in her day. Sonya Dorman. born 1924, died 2005 (married name Sonya Dorman Hess, and she sometimes signed herself a form of that name), published about 20 stories in the SF magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1980, as well as one story (also apparently SF) in Cosmopolitan in 1961. At least two stories received particular notice. "When I Was Miss Dow" first appeared in 1966 in Galaxy, and has been widely anthologized, including in the second Nebula Award Stories volume, in Pamela Sargent's influential anthology Women of Wonder, and in the landmark Norton Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebery). And "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.

Dorman was also a poet, and arguably her reputation as a poet surpassed her reputation as an SF writer. I recall running across one of her poems in a school anthology back in high school -- the poem was "Piazza Piece", and I thought it (still think it) excellent, and I was shocked to realize I knew the author as an SF writer.

Between 1969 and 1973 she published three delightful (if slightly retro) novelets in F&SF about a young woman named Roxy Rimidon. Roxy is a young woman in the "Planet Patrol", sort of a special police group in a unified Earth sometime in the nearish future. The three stories are "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (December 1969), "Alpha Bets" (November 1970), and "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" (August 1973). A little while back I ran across Dorman's only novel, Planet Patrol. I quickly gathered that it was a Roxy Rimidon story, and so I snapped it up. It was published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan (there's a classic old publishing house, long gone now I guess) in 1978.






I had hoped it might be a completely new story, but I wasn't surprised to find out that it's mostly a fixup of the three F&SF stories. Well, there's nothing wrong with that, and it had been some time since I had read the stories, so I read the novel, and I confess the first thing I thought was "This isn't as good as I remembered". That too is not a rare feeling, but it really did seem disappointing. So I went back to the original F&SF issues, and reread the stories, and found that, while they are substantially the same as the episodes in the novel, the original stories have a distinct energy that seemed lacking in the novel. Most of this, I believe, is due to the market for the novel: YA. Dorman rewrote the stories, presumably to fit the market, and the rewrite leached a lot of the charm from the stories, for me. Some of the changes are pretty minor: a couple of character names are altered. But there a further changes that are much more important, and not surprisingly, most of them involve sex. To begin with, in the stories Roxy's age is between 22 and 25, while in the novel she's between 17 and 19. Right at the beginning, when she's in training, she throws herself (more or less) at the Planet Patrol Academy's leader, a Colonel with an unsuitable wife -- that's entirely excised from the novel. And in the final episode, the F&SF version has Roxy jumping into bed with one of her colleagues -- again, gone from the novel. There a few other less prominent changes, but to me they all work to the detriment of the novel version. It should be said, the fundamental plots of the episodes remain unchanged (and there is one additional shortish episode in the novel). (there is also a subplot in the stories suggesting Roxy has mild telepathic abilities which is removed in the novel.)

Planet Patrol opens with Roxy in the Planet Patrol Academy, getting criticized for being a bit too full in the hips. (I said the stories are a bit "retro".) There is a little bit about the training exercises, mostly the same in the book and the first story ("Bye, Bye, Banana Bird"), though the original story has a more and more interesting stuff (including the bits about Roxy making a bit of a move (unsuccessfully, I should add) on the Colonel). The novel continues to her first assignment (not in any of the F&SF stories), a somewhat implausible and slight story of rescuing an Akita from a crevasse.

The next segment in the novel is the story "Alpha Bets", set at the biannual "Games" (sort of a future Olympics between the ten Dominions into which Earth is divided). Here we are introduced to the central conflict (such as it is) of the novel: the resentment felt by Earth's two interstellar colonies, Alpha and Vogl, over their restricted roles as basically "breadbaskets" or "mines" for Earth. They are not even allowed to compete in the Games, though that will change in the next year. Roxy's brother is one of the best Tumblers in the world, and when his partner is injured, Roxy improvises by recruiting a new partner for him from an Alphan family that she had met, whose son had made it clear he resented not being able to compete.

Then Roxy is assigned to investigate potential Vogl insurrectionists on a Caribbean island. (This segment was originally the second half of "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird", and thus originally Roxy's first assignment.) She discovers a murdered Planet Patrol Sergeant, and ferrets out the nasty Voglians who are responsible, but in the process comes to realize that while their methods are evil, the Vogl insurrectionists have a valid grievance.

This leads to the final episode, which was, in F&SF, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". (Curiously, the title derives from a brief scene in "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (that does not appear at all in the novel).) Roxy visits her mother while planning to testify at the Inter Dominion meeting in favor of more autonomy, and especially an independent Planet Patrol branch, for Vogl and Alpha. But she is kidnapped and threatened by more Vogl insurrectionists, leading to a crisis of conscience: should she still testify as she had planned, or will that testimony seem to endorse their violent methods? She finds a way to testify honorably, and ends up assigned to be part of the Planet Patrol group that will help set up the first Vogl Planet Patrol academy. But on Vogl she learns that Vogl has its own internal problems, and also that they have secretly done some original research into cyborgization that surpasses anything Earth has done ... The resolution is a little bit odd, in that Roxy and company do fairly little to solve the problems ... but perhaps that makes some sense.

I still quite enjoyed the stories on rereading them -- as noted, the novel not quite so much. It's all very fast moving stuff, a bit retro in feel in a couple of ways, but very good fun. And, I should add, rather uncharacteristic of the rest of her work, which is by and large still quite worth looking up.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Old Bestsellers: A Fool There Was, by Porter Emerson Browne








A Fool There Was, by Porter Emerson Browne

a review by Rich Horton

Last week I wrote about The Sheik, by E. M. Hull, one of the worst books in many ways among those I have reviewed on this blog. But The Sheik's badness was in large part its objectionable treatment of women and Arabs, especially of course the rape plot. Not to say that it's all that well-written a book either, but you can see if you squint why it was so popular. A Fool There Was is bad in a different way: it's just poorly constructed, and poorly written.

A Fool There Was shares something else interesting with The Sheik. The film version of The Sheik was critical to establishing the persona of one of the most famous male sex symbols of the silent era, in Rudolf Valentino. And the 1915 film version of A Fool There Was established the persona of one of the most famous female sex symbols of the silent era, Theda Bara. (Bara played a femme fatale who was regarded as sort of a Vampire, hence her nickname, the Vamp, and hence the term "vamping".)

I can find only minimal details of Porter Emerson Browne's career in searching the internet. He was born in 1879 and died in 1934. He was a journalist and a playwright. Supposedly he was for a time secretary to Pancho Villa, and also a speechwriter for Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote many plays, of which the most famous are probably A Fool There Was (which was filmed twice) and The Bad Man (filmed three times).

A Fool There Was was written for Broadway, apparently, and ran early in 1909. The copy I have is in novel form, and frankly doesn't seem very much like a play. I assume Browne adapted it for book publication. It was originally published in 1909 by H. K. Fly (this was, actually, most likely the play version), and my copy is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint (possibly the first novelized edition). It is illustrated, curiously, by two different people: there are a few lightly colored plates by Edmund Magrath, and quite a number of pen and ink illustrations W. W. Fawcett. (I preferred the Fawcett illustrations.) The book is dedicated to Robert Hilliard, who was the star of the Broadway production. It is quite short, about 42,000 words, divided into many often very short chapters.






The story is nominally based on an 1897 poem by Rudyard Kipling called "The Vampire". The play and book's title is the first four words of the poem, and the first stanza is given as an epigraph. (Apparently, when the 1915 movie version was presented, the entire poem was recited (live) several times during the showing.) The poem is about a man who gives up his "goods", and his "honour and faith", to a woman who didn't much care and eventually "threw him aside".

The novel tells of two men who grew up together in New York City, both falling for the same neighbor girl. John Schuyler eventually wins the girl, and they have a daughter, and all are happy. The other man, Thomas Blake, never marries, and continues as a good friend to the Schuyler family. Both men become quite successful.

There are a series of curious interludes, never adequately explained, set in Brittany, detailing the squalid birth of an illegitimate child, and later the now beautiful young woman encountering her father and killing him, and later an odd scene where a young man comes on a naked woman in a forest, and turns away. I can only assume these are scenes of the early life of the femme fatale character who turns up later (this is the character played by Theda Bara in the movie), but the novel never deigns to really connect things.

Eventually John Schuyler is appointed to a diplomatic post in England. He has to go alone, though Blake sees him off, and hears the story of the suicide of "Young Parmalee", who had been making a fool of himself over a wanton woman. Blake sees the woman briefly on the ship ... and also sees Schuyler see the woman ... Well, you see what happens. Schuyler is drawn helplessly (as if!) into the woman's arms, and begins an affair, which continues throughout his (apparently botched) mission, and even on his return to the US. Eventually he leaves his wife, loses his job, and falls into drunkenness. Blake makes a last attempt to save him from degradation, but the woman, contemptuously, insists Schuyler kiss her one more time before he leaves ... and all is lost.

And that's all!

So, a morality tale. The problem is the construction, and the oddly flippant prose. And the failure to really suggest much of anything believable in any of the relationships: certainly not Schuyler's with his wife, but also not his attraction to the "vampire" character. The only character who came close to convincing me was Schuyler's young daughter. As I noted, the prose is a bit odd -- flippant somehow, given to silly epigrams, and often just trailing off in a sort of dying fall. There isn't a lot of dialogue, which seems strange in a book apparently adapted from a play. Perhaps the play was better! And it is intriguing to have -- purely by accident! -- run across the source material for Theda Bara's first big film (even odder to have done so just after reading the source material for a crucial early Valentino film).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Sheik, by E. M. Hull


Old Bestsellers: The Sheik, by E. M. Hull

a review by Rich Horton

The Sheik is still a somewhat famous and also somewhat notorious novel. Partly this is because it became a film starring perhaps the most famous romantic male lead of the silent period, Rudolf Valentino. (Along with another 1921 film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik established his reputation and persona.) It's also famous ... or notorious ... because it is an astonishingly sexist novel. It is sometimes considered the first novel in the "Romance" category (Georgette Heyer's first novel appeared two years later); and it introduced perhaps the least savory of Romance tropes: the woman who needs to be raped to teach her a lesson, and who then falls for her rapist.

The author was born Edith Maude Henderson in 1880 in London. Though as far as I can tell she lived her whole life in England, her father was American and her mother Canadian. They traveled widely however (her father was a shipowner), and so did young Edith. She married Percy Hull in 1899. During the first World War Edith began writing fiction. The Sheik was her first published novel, appearing in 1919. She published several further novels, including a sequel to The Sheik (The Sons of the Sheik). She died in 1847.

I'll present a brief quick review of The Sheik, followed by some more detail which will include spoilers for The Sheik as well as perhaps P. C. Wren's Beau Sabreur.

The Sheik concerns a very rich young woman named Diana Mayo, who has been raised from birth by her cold fish of a brother. Accustomed to having her own way, and uninterested in men, she decides to take a trip through the Sahara while her brother heads to the US to find a wife who wants his money enough to put up with his selfish ways. However, she is betrayed by her Arab guide, who allows her to be kidnapped by a Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan. Ahmed makes his intentions clear, and despite Diana's expressed hate and fear, has his way with her again and again over the ensuing days.

Months pass as Diana's feelings change, and a few crises follow: an escape attempt, a meeting with a French friend of the Sheik, and Diana being kidnapped again by another Sheik, this one gross and evil ...

Well, it's obvious enough how it all works out. There is one slight (but all too predictable) twist, that I'll mention later. And what did I think of the book? In the first place, the rape plot is truly objectionable ... I don't really get people that defend the Sheik's actions. You can certainly argue that Diana was a stuck up prig, and that her privilege and her unconventional upbringing had led to certain emotional issues which were not healthy. But to suggest that the proper cure for that would be kidnapping and rape -- repeated rape, over months -- is simply sick. Besides that, the book is quite overtly racist in its treatment of Arabs. And finally, it's poorly written. The prose is bad, the pacing is off, Hull's paragraphs are too long (a nitpick, I know), and perhaps most importantly, the romance really doesn't convince, at least not from Diana's side. I suppose I could believe that the Sheik was truly falling for Diana, against his will (he prefers to regard women, especially English women, as disposable), but Diana's sudden realization that she is in love with the Sheik just seems pasted on. Also, though it's obvious that lots of sex (sick as it may be) is occurring, none is described, and quite frankly some more explicit description would have helped (though probably not enough).

A few more details about some additional, spoilerish, points of annoyance after some spoiler space ...







It's fairly obvious that the book's depiction of Arabs is racist, but it's made still worse in that the "good" Sheik, our hero (you know, "good" despite being a kidnapper and rapist) turns out to be actually European in ancestry -- with an aristocratic English father and a Spanish mother ... the same trick, more or less, features in P. C. Wren's Beau Sabreur.

I might also note that the producers of the movie version felt that the rape aspect was too controversial, so it was eliminated. (There were complaints from the book's readers.)

And finally, it seemed possible to me that there was a hint of strange incest in Diana's relationship with her brother, particularly in that he doesn't seem to like women at all, and that Diana is described as having a "boyish figure" and as often dressing in mannish clothes. If Hull had intended that, and had the skill to pull it off, it might have added some psychological interest ... but I think I'm overinterpreting.




Monday, November 17, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Availability

One of this blog's readers asked a little while back about how to get copies of the books I write about here. And to be sure, that's not always easy. But it's easier than you might think, or easier than it was 20 years ago.

Most of the books I've written about I've found almost by chance: at antique stores, at used book shops, at book sales such as the one held each year here in St. Louis at West County Mall, the Greater St. Louis Charity Book Fair. (In this area there are a few more such annual sales: the Jewish Community Center holds one, as does the YMCA.) I like finding books that way ... I like the randomness, the feeling of discovery, and so on. But that's really not a good way to find a book you really WANT. (Or to find a book you are interested in because someone like me reviewed it!)

Some of the books are well-known enough to still be in print. But the very point of the blog is to mention books that aren't that well known. However, these days you can still often find even the most obscure book. One way is of course used book stores online, especially using an aggregator site such as Abebooks. Also, a lot of these books are available in Print on Demand format. Often these can be found at Amazon. I confess I dislike most of those editions ... they tend to be rather ugly. But they do usually have all the words in the right order ...

And finally, some are available in ebook format. Some of these are for sale at Amazon or other places as well ... but others are available free, from places like Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org), which puts books online using volunteer labor. All their books are (or are supposed to be) out of copyright, so typical from before 1923. Another source of ebooks, usually not free, is Forgotten Books (www.forgottenbooks.com). These books don't tend to be formatted as nicely as a commercial ebook, but they are still readable, and cheap or free.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Duchess Hotspur, by Rosamond Marshall



Old Bestsellers: Duchess Hotspur, by Rosamond Marshall

a review by Rich Horton

Rosamond Marshall was a popular writer for both children and adults. She was born in 1902, but her first novel (for children) did not appear until 1942. Her first adult (for its time, very adult) novel, Kitty, appeared the next year. For the rest of her life (she died, quite young, in 1957) she produced books in both categories. By repute, her adult novels, especially Kitty, sold very well, particularly in paperback. (There is a certain cultural judgement inherent in that statement as applied to books from the '40s, when paperbacks were still new and quite declassé.) Wikipedia knows little about her: she was American-born, briefly married to an Italian man and lived in Rome, later married Charles Marshall, over the last several years of her life split her time between Southern California and Vancouver. (Oh, and there is some controversy over her birthdate: perhaps she was born as early as 1893).

The back cover of my edition of Duchess Hotspur has more details: born in New York City, grew up in England, educated in France, Austria, Germany, and Italy, including some time at the Sorbonne. Spoke English, French, Italian, German, and Piedmontese (an Italian dialect, I presume?) Wrote extensively for foreign language papers, and published a number of adventure novels under pseudonyms. Also was an experienced moutain climber, being the first to break new trails to the tops of at least 22 mountains, with one Alpine peak that she was the first to scale named after her. Pretty impressive, really.

Kitty was made into a somewhat popular movie with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Her last novel, The Bixby Girls, was also made into a movie.

Duchess Hotspur was published by Prentice-Hall in 1946. My edition is the Fifth Printing, and the dustjacket flap claims over 100,000 copies in print, so this book must have sold quite well itself. It's a romance novel set in 1771 or so. The title character is named Percy, Duchess of Harford, called Duchess Hotspur sometimes. (She is apparently so named as she is a descendant of Henry Percy, called Hotspur, probably best known these days for his somewhat innacurate depiction in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I.) She is Duchess in her own right, though she had to win a court case against her odious cousin Sir Harry Cunningham to confirm that. (I'm not sure if it was possible at that time for a woman to be in the House of Lords?) She is a widow, having eloped at 16, but her husband died on their honeymoon and since then she has had a string of lovers, but no one who has held her interest.

Meanwhile Thomas Ligonier is a poor journalist, hoping to attract investors to start a newspaper. He makes enough money to live on from freelancing and from modeling for a sculptor friend. One day the Duchess barges into the sculptor's studio to complain about some work he did for her, and sees Thomas, nude ... and falls hard for him, and he for her. Before long she has thrown over her current lover and is sleeping with Thomas.

Thereby runs the conflict ... can she stay with him? He is lower born than a Duchess (though not a peasant: his father is a clergyman, and he went to Oxford: seems like gentry, but not nobility). She is controlling (for example, she wants to gift him the newspaper) while he wants to earn his way. (And to rule his wife, as men were expected to do.) And what about their pasts? Thomas (presented as a rather implausible paragon) is apparently the one true passion of at least two other women, while the Duchess' string of noble lovers is quite jealous of her new paramour. And what of her evil cousin, who still has designs on the Dukedom?

We see some interesting details on the newspaper business at that time, as Thomas does successfully found a paper. And there is a bit of society life. And lots of sex, not explicitly described but clearly going on all the time. (Including some slightly kinky stuff, especially with one of Tom's former lovers, who discovers a taste for being beaten when she takes up with a new man.) The true action of the novel takes a while to start, but it gets pretty exciting towards the end, when the bad guys (especially Sir Harry) move against Tom. The ending is a bit flat, partly because of a bit of a deus ex machina aspect. It's not a particularly good novel, but after a slowish start it does hold the interest, and I can see why it might have sold well. The sex was probably a factor: tame by today's standards, but I gather pretty racy for the '40s. (One contemporary review I found on the Web all but accused Marshall of copying Kathleen Winsor's famous Forever Amber in that aspect, from two years before, which seems a bit unfair to me because while Forever Amber predates Duchess Hotspur, Marshall's Kitty predates Forever Amber, and as I understand it Kitty was full of sex as well.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell



Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell

a review by Rich Horton

Another trip into the archives for a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago about a book by one of my very favorite writers. It wasn't a bestseller, though I think it got respectful notice: Anthony Powell was, I think, known as an up and comer. He was one of a remarkable cadre of writers to come out of Eton at about the same time: his exact contemporary was the great Henry Yorke, who wrote as Henry Green; while Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, and Cyril Connolly were two years older, and Ian Fleming (a rather different sort of writer, excellent in his own way) was a few years younger. (Another friend of Powell's, born in 1903, though not an Old Etonian, was Evelyn Waugh.)

Powell was born in 1905 to a very upper middle-class, or somewhat lower upper-class, family (the nuances of British class divisions are sometimes a little hard to decipher for me). I suppose as Powell`s wife was the daughter of an Earl, and Powell himself attended Eton and Oxford, his background is more upper-class than not, a milieu certainly reflected in his novels. Powell spent a brief time in publishing (at Duckworth's, which also published his first few novels), a brief time in Hollywood, and then, after service in the War, he wrote for Punch and for various other journals, as well as of course writing novels. Late in his life he published four volumes of memoirs and three volumes of journals. (Powell's wife, by the way, Lady Violet Powell, was a fine writer herself (of memoirs), and she was the niece of Lord Dunsany, the sister of the notorious Lord Longford, and the aunt of Antonia Fraser. As well as being a descendant of Wellington (or perhaps of a Wellington in-law).)

Powell's most famous work is the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), which is purely and simply one of the towering achievements of English letters. It treats the decline of English upper-class society between the two wars, and during and following the Second World War. It is nominally social comedy, and at times very funny indeed, but there is a distinct thread of regret mixed with realization that the society involved needed to change, and that most of the "decline" was a result of weaknesses inherent in the people involved.

Prior to the second World War, Powell published 5 novels, of which Venusberg is the second, published in 1932. These early novels are in some sense rehearsals for the themes and situations of Dance, but they are completely independent. They don`t seem dated to me at all, but they can be difficult to find. (This may be changing -- the University of Chicago Press recently reissued Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men, and perhaps a new edition of Venusberg will come along sometime soon.) I got Venusberg from my local library`s interlibrary loan program, and the edition I read, published in the States in 1953 or so, is a curious omnibus of Venusberg and another early Powell novel, Agents and Patients (1936).

This novel is the story of one Lushington, an English journalist who is sent by his paper to visit an unnamed Baltic republic, obviously modeled on one or more of the three, then-independent, Baltic states. He encounters a variety of quite unusual characters: American and British diplomats, emigre Russians, locals, expatriate Britons, and so on. He falls in love (or as much in love as he seems capable of) with an Austrian woman, the wife of a local Professor, but of course fate intervenes, and Lushington returns home eventually, alone.

As with all of Powell`s novels, the plot is the least of the points of interest. The novel is composed of short chapters, describing, in very humorous terms, the characters and the unusual situations into which they stumble. Powell is notorious for the economical but striking descriptions of his characters, and this talent of his is evident even in this early novel, though it is much developed in Dance. The characters in this book are generally likable (not always true of Powell`s characters), but they seem lost. They seem unable to commit themselves either to a career, or to other people. In this book, the young Powell is satirically observing these characters, of whose milieu he was a member. In his later novels, with the experience of life and a long war intervening, his purpose is less satirical, more ironical, and more understanding.

Obviously, I heartily recommend A Dance to the Music of Time, although it is quite a project (it took me 15 months to read, reading a trilogy at a time, then taking a few months off.) The early Powell novels, such as Venusberg, are perhaps not quite at the level of Dance, but quite worthwhile themselves.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Random Harvest, by James Hilton



Random Harvest, by James Hilton

A review by Rich Horton

This series of reviews is about Old Bestsellers, obviously enough, and Random Harvest certainly qualifies: it was the second bestselling book of 1941 according to Publishers' Weekly and the New York Times. It's also intended to bring to light somewhat forgotten books, and I freely confess I thought Random Harvest was a likely "forgotten book" when I saw a copy at an antique store in Galesburg, IL. I've certainly heard of James Hilton, and I read Lost Horizon years ago, and I knew that Goodbye, Mr. Chips was also a famous book (and movie). But I pretty much thought those were the only two books by Hilton that anyone knew much about.

That's just me though. I quickly learned that Hilton had three major novelistic successes: Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and the book at hand, Random Harvest. All sold very well, all were made into well-received movies. It still seems to me that the first two are much more widely remembered, in both book and movie form -- but a glance at the Amazon page for Random Harvest reveals no fewer than 123 reader reviews, with an averaging rating of 4.3 stars (and of the two 1 star reviews one is complaining about not receiving his e-book copy -- so a review of the service not the book -- and the other claims to love the movie but hate the book -- suggesting to me a reader confused by such things as extended flashbacks ... and probably words -- but I snark).

James Hilton was born in Lancashire in 1900, son of a headmaster (and indeed we are told that his father was an inspiration for the main character of Goodbye, Mr. Chips). His first novel was published in 1920, but his first major success was with Lost Horizon in 1933. Goodbye, Mr. Chips followed a year later, and sold even better, evidently reigniting sales for his earlier novels. Hilton moved to Hollywood in the mid-30s, working on a number of screenplays, most notably perhaps Mrs. Miniver, for which he won an Oscar. (Mrs. Miniver also won for Best Picture -- ironically, another nominated film that year was Random Harvest.) Hilton married twice and divorced twice -- his first wife, Alice Brown, was an Englishwoman and his second wife, Galina Kopineck, was "a starlet", though I can't find her name in the IMDB. He died in 1954.

Random Harvest opens with the narrator, a Cambridge graduate student named Harrison, encountering an older man named Charles Rainier on a train. They discuss the impending war (this is 1937) and a shared interest in psychology, as well as a story about Rainier's service in the Great War. Afterward Harrison looks Rainier up and learns that he's a successful business owner and a Member of Parliament, and too that Rainier is to be a guest at a Cambridge function for which Harrison is one of the hosts ... One thing leads to another and after Harrison finishes his degree he takes a job as Rainier's secretary.

They become somewhat close, and eventually Charles tells Harrison his story (recounted to us in third person). He was a younger son of an autocratic father who ran a prominent company. As with so many young men, he joined the army to fight the Germans, and was severely injured. He remembered nothing from the time of his injury until waking on a bench in the Liverpool rain a year or two after the armistice. Then he returned home, to find his father dying, and the rest of his rather awful family a bit miffed that he is still alive and that their cut of the inheritance just got smaller. He returns to Cambridge, making a bit of a mark, but before he can take a degree his brother has run the family company into the ground, and Charles is pressured into taking over the firm. He makes a great success of it, and over time falls in love with his much younger step-niece (she is 14 and he 25 when they meet ... a bit of a Door Into Summer vibe ...) But she suddenly throws him over as they are about to get married. The rest of the story is a bit routine: continued success with the firm, a pleasant but apparently loveless marriage to an efficient secretary who as his wife works hard to make him a social and political leader, and a growing sense of loss, and of having missed a chance to do what he really should have with his life.

Then we return to the present time, as war grows closer. Harrison and Rainier attend a play, and that plus a chance mention of a certain hospital suddenly leads to Rainier regaining his memory of the lost years between his injury and his waking up in Liverpool ... and we get an account of this time, when he had no idea who he was, or what his family was, and called himself Smith after escaping from an asylum, soon meeting an actress in a touring company of players, and joining the company as a sort of accountant and later, briefly, a successful actor (I was reminded of Scaramouche), while he and the actress become closer ... well, I won't spoil anything, but the crisis and resolution obviously involve Rainier's need to reconcile his two separate lives -- if even he can.

The ending is beautiful, I have to say, if perhaps a bit contrived, and certainly representative of popular fiction. But that's what it is, after all. Hilton is also deeply concerned with the nature of England, and a return to a simpler, truer, time. I think in this he is a bit sentimental and uncritical of what that Olde England was really like. Its clear that Rainier (and perhaps Hilton) expected the second War to shock England into major changes, and so it did, but I don't think the changes were precisely as this novel seems to advocate. All that said, it does provoke thought about such issues, and more importantly, it's a greatly enjoyable book to read, with a really moving finish.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Heyday, by W. M. Spackman


Heyday, by W. M. Spackman

A review by Rich Horton


I'm cheating a bit here ... this wasn't a bestseller (though I think it did OK), and it's not quite as old as the usual parameters of this series. (I like to stay pre-1950, and this book is from 1953.) It's also not exactly forgotten, though it was in danger of being forgotten when Spackman's career stalled for a couple of decades as he couldn't sell his (outstanding) second novel.

One of my favorite 20th Century American writers is W. M. Spackman.  Spackman was a Quaker, of old family and old money, born in 1905, a member of the Princeton Class of 1927.  The depression apparently ruined his plans for his life (he lost all his money), and he spent some time in journalism and radio, before ending up in academe in the 50s, though after selling his first novel he returned to Princeton to write (but apparently not to teach).  His first novel was Heyday, published in 1953, when he was 48. It was apparently a modest success. His next novel, An Armful of Warm Girl, was finished by 1959 or so, but he couldn't sell it.  He concentrated on his academic work then, publishing some well-regarded essays and a collection of poems, until An Armful of Warm Girl was rediscovered and eventually published in Harper's in 1977, and as a book in 1978. Three more novels were published by 1985 (A Presence with Secrets, A Difference of Design, and A Little Decorum, for Once).  Spackman died in 1990, leaving an unpublished novel (As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning) and some work on a revision to Heyday.  All six of these novels (Heyday in its partially revised form) and a couple of short stories were published by the magnificent folks at The Dalkey Archive Press in 1997 as The Collected Fiction of W. M. Spackman.  I've written about that book before, I think it's wonderful.  The later novels, from Armful on, are generally of a piece -- the plots feature lighthearted adultery, usually between a man in his 50s or older and a somewhat younger woman (the ages range from the late teens to the 40s through the various books).  The primary delight of the novels is the prose -- as somebody wrote, "confectionary" -- a breathless, elegant, supple, sheerly gorgeous stream of words -- wry and purposely affected dialogue, ardent descriptions (usually of the inexhaustible charms of beautiful women) -- and constant movement.  For some tastes the prose might be too affected, too arch -- though not for me.  For many tastes, including mine, if I let it bother me, the plots and situations and characterizations are very classist, arguably sexist, and full of wish-fulfillment.  The general mood is comic, though the novels can turn meditative and somewhat melancholy at times.

Heyday is a rather different beast. I have read both versions.  The revisions are mostly severe cuts.  The original novel, about twice the length of the later revision, was published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback by Ballantine in 1953. The basic subject of the novel, in both forms, is the tribulations of the Princeton Class of 1927 during the Depression.  We follow a small group of men and women as they try to find work, hatch silly schemes like riding out the slump on a communal farm, and, mostly, go to parties and sleep with each other.  The narrator is a man named Webb Fletcher, a Quaker born in Pennsylvania but raised in Wilmington, Delaware (much like Spackman), but his main interest is chronicling the love life of a distant cousin of his, Malachi ("Mike") Fletcher, also a Quaker and a fellow member of the Class of 1927.  The storyline follows Mike as he almost falls in love with Kitty Locke, only to find her long term involvement with a somewhat abusive other man too much to overcome; and as he fends off the desperate attentions of Jill Starr, a fragile woman who is being blatantly cheated on by her husband; then as he enters an affair with Stephanie Lowndesden, only to lose her to Webb, after which he rekindles things with Kitty, even though it is clear his chance for real happiness is gone.  In the later, revised, version, that's pretty much all there is (intermixed, to be sure, with some descriptions of Webb's amorous adventures, particularly with Stephanie), but it works pretty well -- it's a desperate portrayal of a rather desperate, not wholly sympathetic, group of people.  At the same time it is basically comic, though tinged with melancholy, as what wouldn't be set against the backdrop of the Depression.  (And there is only a smidgen of recognition that these characters are privileged and lucky, with resources to fall back on that many a poor person entirely lacked.) The prose is pretty good, though not pitched quite to the level of Spackman's later novels (much of the dialogue is already pure Spackman).

The parts Spackman cut tend to shift the focus quite a bit, and to point a moral rather more explicitly.  They also move the novel more to the tragic than comic direction.  The original novel opens as Webb Fletcher, a Lt Cdr for Navy Intelligence, finds out that Mike Fletcher has died in the Pacific in 1942, attacking a Japanese ship with his carrier-based plane.  (Apparently he was not a Conscientious Objector, even though a Quaker.)  Webb begins to reflect on what he knew of Mike, and the ways in which he and his cousin were very similar, and yet also the ways in which Webb was able to avoid Mike's desolate end.  (Not so much dying, but entering into a less than satisfactory marriage, it later becomes clear.  In the revised version, I don't think it's made clear that Mike's marriage to Kitty is a second-best sort of thing.)  And Webb reflects a bit on his Princeton career, and then on a trip to France shortly after college at which he encountered Davy Starr with a silly girl named Jill, and Jill's friend Barbara, or Bar, with whom Webb falls head over heels in love.  Webb and Bar are married, then the Depression hits, and they spend some time in Chicago before Webb gets a job in New York.  On the way to meet Webb in New York, Bar, not concentrating, runs over three children on a rural road, and gets sent to prison for manslaughter. 

Which makes for a slightly lurid opening.  The novel continues to the middle section, which is pretty much exactly the revised version, except that explicit references to Webb's being married, and to Bar's travails in prison, are excised.  Thus the original version is much more balanced in that it is about both Webb and Mike, and that much of the novel is really concerned with Webb's loneliness, missing Bar, and how his eventual despair (particularly after an early parole chance is denied) nearly leads to what might have been a disastrous affair with Kitty Locke, and does lead to his actually rather sweet, but doomed, affair with Stephanie Lowndesden.  Finally, there is a closing section, also cut, detailing Webb's and Bar's reunion in 1937, after she is finally released from prison, and their beginning to rebuild their life (apparently successfully, as far as we can tell from the perspective of 1942).  Spackman also takes some care to point out that Webb's eventual salvation was that he fell thoroughly in love with someone, while Mike is portrayed as never having been able to give himself so completely to a woman (there are hints that maybe he should have taken Jill away from Davy Starr).  There is also a mild suggestion that Stephanie is tragically, or at least sadly, deprived of her own true love because Webb is already "taken".

All in all the revised version seems a bit more explicitly Fitzgeraldian -- indeed, Spackman himself, in a note at the end of 1953 edition, brings up Fitzgerald. Besides Fitzgerald the most obvious comparison might be the great British novelist Henry Green, born in the same year as Spackman. Another comparison might be with the early novels of yet another great writer born in 1905, Anthony Powell, especially his first, Afternoon Men. Heyday is a pretty good book, one that you would probably call very promising had you encountered it in 1953, but maybe also a bit unsure of itself -- too ready to force a point, as it were. And maybe a bit too overtly portentous.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Night Life of the Gods, by Thorne Smith



The Night Life of the Gods, by Thorne Smith

A review by Rich Horton

Thorne Smith of course remains fairly famous as the writer of two novels, Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, about a banker stuck in a boring marriage who is haunted by a funloving ghost couple. These books remain famous probably mostly because of a series of successful movies (starring Cary Grant, in the first film at least) and later a radio show and a TV series.

Smith was born James Thorne Smith, Jr., in 1892. He came from a Naval family, attended Dartmouth, and then spent some time in the Navy. His first couple of books consisted of comic sketches about Biltmore Oswald, a Naval recruit, that were originally written for a Navy magazine. His breakout books was Topper, in 1926. Besides Topper his most successful novels were The Stray Lamb (1929), and The Night Life of the Gods (1931). Smith died in 1934, as far as I can tell having essentially drunk himself to death -- his novels featured heavy drinking (even as, or perhaps because, they were set during Prohibition), and he apparently drank as prodigiously as his characters.

The Night Life of the Gods concerns Hunter Hawk, a successful bachelor inventor who has been forced to take in his sister, her useless husband, her husband's father, and their two children, the awful Alfred Junior and the rather nice Daphne. Hawk invents a petrification ray, which he uses to rather cruelly turn his relatives into stone (and back again, I should say). He wanders off into the countryside and meets a leprechaun, and the leprechaun's enchanting daughter Megaera, or Meg.

Meg falls immediately for Hawk, and leaps into his bed at the first opportunity. She and her father enjoy Hawk's liquor a great deal, and before long they have got him into trouble with the law. They end up at his New York City apartment, from whence they proceed to the Metropolitan Museum, where a reverse process of the petrification ray turns various statues of the Greek gods into living beings.

The rest of the novel concerns the chaos caused by the gods having the time of their "lives" drinking and thieving and pranking their way through New York, and later back into the country where Hawk's other home is. But the law is still after him, and the gods soon tire of the pace of modern life, not to mention the strenght of modern liquor. And Hunter's family is still a problem -- is there a way he can solve his problems so that Daphne comes out OK and the more odious of his family (and neighbors) are punished? The ending is actually rather bittersweet, and in some ways the best thing about the book. It's clear that Hunter Hawk, for all his intelligence and cynicism, and for all that he seems to really love Meg, is not a happy person.

I have to say I wasn't enthralled by the book. It's one of those stories where you can see that it's funny and clever throughout, but somehow that doesn't really strike home. Part of it might be some datedness -- the treatment of sex was perhaps intended to be shocking and titillating but for a contemporary audience that hardly registers. The drinking also perhaps doesn't come off in the same spirit so many years after prohibition, and with it necessary to keep in mind that excessive drinking (and wild driving under the influence) isn't necessarily all that funny. I know that makes me sound like a killjoy, but, well, there you are. It's clearly a well-done book, but not a book I could really love.

Some years ago I had read The Stray Lamb, and I'll reproduce the snippet I wrote about that:

This features a fortyish, rich, investment banker type, in 1928 or so, named T. Lawrence Lamb. Lamb becomes fascinated with a beautiful friend of his daughter, who throws herself at him  His wife is a b*tch, so Lamb would like to accept her advances, but he is too strait-laced in habits. Then a mysterious stranger decides to teach him a lesson. He is changed in turn to several different animals, such as a horse, a dog, a seagull, and others.  Chaos ensues, his wife leaves him, he learns to be less straitlaced. It's quite fun, often very funny and very clever. A bit forced at times, and a lot convenient.  But enjoyable.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ace Doubles: Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany/The Tree Lord of Imeten, by Tom Purdom




Ace Doubles: Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany/The Tree Lord of Imeten, by Tom Purdom

A review by Rich Horton

Not having finished reading my latest old bestseller, I'm turning to an Ace Double, as noted previously also an interest of mine. This books pairs a very interesting early novel (or novella) by one of the greatest of SF writers (and a newly minted SFWA Grandmaster) with an enjoyable early novel by a favorite writer of mine, a man whose work flew largely under the radar until a modest increase in visibility engendered by a late career resurgence. So: Samuel R. Delany certainly isn't forgotten, but to an extent Empire Star is underappreciated (in my opinion), and Tom Purdom is surely a writer who deserves a wider audience.

This Ace Double was published in 1966. Empire Star is about 29,000 words long, The Tree Lord of Imeten is about 48,000 words. To the best of my knowledge, neither book appeared in any other form previous to this publication. Delany had 5 novels appear as part of Ace Doubles: his first, The Jewels of Aptor; the first two novels in his Fall of the Towers trilogy; The Ballad of Beta-2, and this one. The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star were later reissued together as #20571 in the last year of Ace Doubles, 1973. My original copy of the two books, bought in 1975 for $1.25, is not bound dos-a-dos like a typical Ace Double -- I think this is a still later reissue of the 1973 Ace Double, but I may be wrong -- perhaps this was the 1973 version (though $1.25 seems a high price).

Samuel R. Delany was justly among the most celebrated SF writers of the 60s and 70s. For me his most congenial work is a remarkable burst of stories and novels from 1966 through 1968 -- those three years saw the publication of his Nebula winning novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection as well as my favorite among his novels, Nova, plus his Nebula winning story "Aye, and Gomorrah", his Nebula and Hugo winner "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", and such stories as "The Star Pit", "Driftglass", and "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line". To say that those are my favorites among Delany's work shouldn't be seen as rejecting the value of later stuff such as Trouble on Triton or Tales of Neveryon, which I still enjoy -- it's just that what he did from 1966 through 1968 still impresses me as just plain more fun.

Empire Star came out just at the beginning of this period, in 1966. It is generally grouped with his earlier novels, but in tone it reminds me as much of Babel-17 as any of his stuff, and it quite openly foreshadows aspects of Nova. It doesn't have the enduring reputation of the stories I mentioned above, but it is impressive work, extremely playful in a bravura and quite accomplished fashion -- showing an author clearly besotted with language, clearly interested in allusion and symbolism but still at the point of having fun with it all. It's a thoroughly enjoyable novel, if just that bit less serious than even his slightly later stuff to relegate it to the second rank among his works.

It opens with Comet Jo, a young man on a planet of Tau Ceti devoted to harvesting plyasil and nothing else, encountering a downed alien spaceship and coming into possession of a devil kitten, a crystallized alien called Jewel, and a message to deliver to Empire Star. So he hitches a ride with a spaceship away from Tau Ceti -- despite the fact that he is a simplex boy, and that living in the wider universe may require him to become complex and even multiplex. The story darts rapidly to Earth, to other planets, and to Empire Star; and Jo meets such people as the tortured San Severina, who owns seven enslaved aliens called Lll; and the embodied consciousness of a Lll in a computer -- the Lump; and the suicidal poet Ni Ty Lee, who (like Theodore Sturgeon) seems to have done everything you have done before you could do it; and a Princess escaped from Miss Perrypicker's Academy. What is it about -- well, that's sort of multiplex. It's swift and gay and bittersweet and funny and the ending is delightful, with echoes of Charles Harness but much tighter. It's really a fine work.

Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, most of it in Asimov's, and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the three "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and this year's "The Path of the Transgressor" are quite remarkable, as well as later work like 2013's "A Stranger from a Foreign Ship".

So, I am rather an admirer of his latter-day short fiction. I was thus glad when I ran across this Ace Double:-- not only was it a good excuse to reread Empire Star but a good opportunity to try Purdom at novel length, as this was the first of his novels I read. The result is not bad -- The Tree Lord of Imeten isn't a brilliant book at all, and it's noticeably rushed in its conclusion, but it's a fairly original and refreshing story in many ways. It's not as good as Empire Star (not even close) but it's solid work, and the combined Ace Double has to rank as one of the stronger books in the whole series.

Harold is a 21 year old man living in a colony of refugees from a regimented 21st Century Earth. The colony has been established on a plateau on a planet of Delta Pavonis, on a world otherwise dominated by forest, mountain, and ocean. His mother and sister are long dead, and his father and his best friend have just been murdered in some never specified political dispute. A young woman, Joanne, negotiates a deal whereby the two are exiled off the plateau, but not killed.

In the forest they encounter two separate intelligent species -- a ground-dwelling species without hands (just paws) but great linguistic facility; and a tree-dwelling apelike species which has just entered on an Iron Age. The tree-dwellers are violent, and they have enslaved many members of the ground dwelling species. Harold and Joanne are captured by the tree-dwellers, and, sickened by the slaveholding, they scheme to escape and work to free the slaves.

All fairly routine, really, but it's redeemed by a pretty decent job of portraying the two species, particularly the ground-dwellers, and by the fairly well-characterized main characters. Minor effective details are Harold's extreme nearsightedness and Joanne's limp. The plot resolution is a bit rapid, and somewhat conventional. Still, I liked it, and I wondered if Purdom wrote a sequel -- there's definitely room for a story about the eventual contact between the two indigenous species and the rest of the human colony.

As for the sequel I had wondered about: in the past few years (2010-2014) Purdom has published four novelette-length extensions to the story, all published in Asimov's: "Warfriends", "Golva's Ascent", "Warloard", and "Bogdavi's Dream". These follow on fairly directly from the novel, continuing the story of the two alien races and a number of humans: not just Harold and Joanne but other resisters to the (now better explained) political dispute among the human colony. They are very fine work, and I hope we'll eventually see an omnibus of The Tree Lord of Imeten and these follow-on stories.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Black Flemings, by Kathleen Norris




The Black Flemings, by Kathleen Norris

A review by Rich Horton

Here again is a book of the sort I consider central to this series ... a popular book from decades ago by a supremely popular writer who is now mostly forgotten.

Kathleen Thompson was born in San Francisco, California, in 1880. Her parents both died in 1899, and she worked in a hardware store to support her siblings, and also began to publish occasional short stories. In 1906 she became the society columnist for the San Franscico Call. She met writer Charles Gilman Norris in the course of that job, and married him in 1909, after he had moved to New York to edit the American Magazine. They had one living  child (a pair of twins died in childbirth or shortly after). The Norrises returned to California in 1919. Kathleen Norris died in 1966.

Norris' first novel, Mother (1911), was expanded from a story she wrote for the American. It became a bestseller and was praised by the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt. She began publishing novels regularly, by some accounts publishing as many as 93. Her novels were consistently bestsellers, and two appear on Publishers' Weekly's lists of the Top Ten bestsellers by year: The Heart of Rachael in 1916, and Harriet and the Piper in 1920. She is often called the bestselling woman novelist of the 20th Century -- I'm not sure how this was determined, though. For example, Mary Roberts Rinehart, a very near contemporary of Norris's, and approximately as prolific, appeared on the PW lists of Top Ten Bestsellers of the year 12 times, for 10 different books -- one would think she sold as many or more books as Norris. Norris continued to publish novels at least into the 1950s.

Norris was related by marriage to a number of well-known writers. Her husband was a well-received novelist in his day, most especially for Salt, though he is all but forgotten today. Her brother-in-law, Frank Norris, was much more crtically successful than either of them, and is still remembered, especially for McTeague and The Octopus. Kathleen Norris' sister married poet William Rose Benét, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1942. Though William Rose Benét is hardly read any more, his brother Stephen Vincent Benét, who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, is still very well-known. (The Benét's are the only pair of siblings each to have won a Poetry Pulitzer, though cousins Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell also both won the Prize.)

Kathleen Norris was critically regarded as overly sentimental, partly because her books exalted the roles of wife and mother; and no doubt partly because her bestseller plots do seem to have tended towards the sentimental. He relatively low critical regard probably also stems from her prolificity, and too from her financial success. Her husband's work was better received at the time, though she seems to have sold better. Likely her place as a writer of overtly "women's fiction" contributed to her reception as well. It is my sense that she is a writer, unlike many of the writers I've covered in this series (though not all) who may well be worthy of a modest revival. She was a devout Catholic, and an ardent opponent of birth control, though on other political questions, especially having to do with women's rights, her views were more liberal.

The Black Flemings (1926) does not seem to be one of her better known books. (As far as I can tell, her best-received novels, besides the bestsellers already mentioned, include Saturday's Child (1914), Josselyn's Wife (1918), and Certain People of Importance (1922).) It is set in Massachusetts, on the coast, almost entirely in a gloomy old mansion called Wastewater. Wastewater is the home of the Fleming family, but at the time of the action, there is no real head of the family. David Fleming, a distant cousin who was raised by the late Roger Fleming after his widowed mother married him, acts as a financial advisor of sorts. He is level-headed and not terribly ambitious, and spends much of his time painting. He has a sort of intention to marry Roger's niece, Sylvia, who is beautiful and intelligent and "superior". Roger's son (and David's half-brother), Tom, ran away to sea at 14, and had not been heard from since -- he is assumed to be dead, making Sylvia the heir. The mistress of Wastewater is Aunt Flora, another distant cousin, who had twice been engaged to marry Roger, only to be thrown over, first for David's mother and then for Cecily Kent, a frail 17 year old who somehow attracted Roger's attention only to die after only a few unhappy years of marriage. Flora had married Roger's rackety brother Will, who later died, though not before fathering Sylvia.

Into this tangle returns Gabrielle Charpentier, the daughter of Aunt Lily, Flora's younger sister, who went mad and died, partly because her husband, Mr. Charpentier, abandoned her even before Gabrielle's birth. Gabrielle, or Gay, is a beautiful young woman, blond as opposed to the usual brunette of the "Black Flemings", and convent educated. The problem is what to do with her ... she has no money, and little in the way of education. But, we soon realize, she is the true heroine, and her steadfastness, honesty, and good instincts are seen (by the writer and (eventually) the reader) as greater virtues than Sylvia's "superiority" (though it should not be said that Sylvia is at all a bad person). To the reader's non-surprise, she falls for David -- and soon David for her, though he doesn't quite realize it.

The novel develops somewhat slowly (though it remains interesting), and unveils its secrets (which are many) at a rather unconventional pace. It turns mainly on the questions of Gabrielle's birth, about which there are a series of revelations, as well as on such things as the identity of the mysterious old woman whom Gay sometimes sees but whom everyone else denies the existence of; and too of course on the true fate of David's half-brother Tom, who would be the heir to Wastewater and to the Fleming fortune if he were ever to be found; and also on the real history of Roger's adventures with women. So in fact there is a distinct touch of the Gothic to the whole thing, though it's not a full-blown Gothic.

The wrapping up is not really much of a surprise, though the specifics of the working out aren't necessarily exactly as expected. I will say Sylvia's eventual fate seemed a bit tacked-on to me. It really reads quite nicely -- Norris was a writer of some skill. She also worked hard at delineated her characters -- doing, to be sure, a lot of telling and not showing. And she did not get deep into their inner life, but at a more superficial level she does good work. I suppose I would say it is quite skilled popular fiction characterization, if not being great literary characterization. Her depiction of Sylvia, in particular, is quite acute, and I believed it utterly. Gay, on the other hand, though a very engaging protagonist, is rather too much the paragon to convince. The book, as I suggested, moves a bit slowly, but it still held my attention. And I will say that I have some interest in checking out something more by Norris (though I probably don't have the TIME to do so!)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Princess Maritza, by Percy Brebner




Princess Maritza, by Percy Brebner

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a pretty obscure book, I'd say -- at least to me. I had never heard of the book or the author until I saw it in an antique store just off Highway 55 40 or so miles north of St. Louis. But it was clear that it was a Ruritanian story, and I have a bit of a weakness for that subgenre.

Once again, the best online source of informaton on this non-SF writer was the Science Fiction Encylopedia. Percy James Brebner (1864-1922) was an Englishman. He wrote mostly romantic adventures, at least a dozen novels. Some of his books were written as by "Christian Lys". The SFE is interested in five of his novels that had (mostly somewhat slight) fantastical elements, particularly The Fortress of Yadasara: A Narrative Prepared from the Manuscript of Clinton Verrall, Esq. (in a magazine in 1898 as by Lys, in book form as The Knight of the Silver Star in 1907 as by Brebner) and The Mystery of Ladyplace (1900).

Princess Maritza was first published by T. J. McBride and Son in 1906 according to the copyright notice in my edition, which is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint. (The SFE gives 1907 by Cassell -- perhaps that was the first UK edition?) My edition has two rather nice illustrations by Harrison Fisher, a fairly well-known illustrator of that time, noted in particular for his depictions of women.

As I noted, it's a Ruritanian story, indeed nearly as pure an example as might be found this side of the original, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda. Of course it is not nearly as good as that book, but I did rather enjoy it. It opens with the disgraced soldier Desmond Ellery wandering the downs near a friend's house, when he encounters a beautiful 18 year old girl, who tells him that she is playing hooky from the local finishing school ... and also that she is a Princess, though her family's throne, in the apparently Balkan country of Wallaria, has been usurped. Her ambition, though she is but a female, is to return and retake her throne, despite the fact that the Great Powers all oppose this, feeling that Wallaria is best kept in its current state for balance of power reasons. And indeed Desmond's friend Sir Charles Martin informs him later that Princess Maritza's family were terrible rulers.

But Desmond feels there is nothing left for him in England, after he was unfairly dismissed from his military post due to a false story of cheating at cards. So he heads to Sturatzberg, capital of Wallaria, and offers his services to the King. (A curious move, this, as if he was so intrigued by Princess Maritza, why would he swear to serve her enemies?) After a couple of years of no action, he is summoned by a mysterious Frenchman to a meeting with a woman who turns out to be the Queen -- and it seems she will soon have a mission for him, to travel to the secret headquarters of the brigand Vasilici and recruit him to her mission -- which is to rise up and throw out the foreigners who have dominated Wallaria through the weak King. Chief among these seems to be the British Ambassador, Lord Cloverton.

Desmond, in the interim, spends time at court, and becomes associated with the beautiful Countess Frina Mavrodin. Lord Cloverton recognizes Desmond's worth, but is concerned that he will be a problem. Desmond is also kidnapped and brought to a meeting with a masked woman, who warns him against involvement with the Frenchman's schemes ... And there are rumors that Princess Maritza has run away from her English school and returned to Sturatzberg.

Things continue in this vein. Desmond Ellery, torn between his promised service to the Queen and his obsession with the memory of Princess Maritza, dallies with Frina Mavrodin for a while (not realizing her true loyalties) before finally being sent on his mission to Vasilici. He gains a new companion on this trip, a beardless youth who is a brilliant marksman. He learns some of the truth about the scheming Frenchman. There is a duel, and noble men and women are tragically placed on opposite sides of the struggle, and there is a love triangle or quadrangle. Desmond and his loyal servant and the mysterious beardless youth (I defy anyone to guess his identity [grin]) are hopelessly trapped by the brigands in an abandoned castle. The city rises in rebellion ...

Brebner doesn't really miss a trick here. And it mostly works fairly well. It's all quite silly of course, and often implausible, and as with many novels published in this time frame, the shadow of World War I hangs heavily over all the fustian, for a present day reader, anyway. (That said, there is a vein of realpolitik in Brebner's treatment of the place of Wallaria in events of its time.) The ending is, within the constraints of its genre, somewhat believable. The characters are types, of course, but nicely done types -- Desmond is just dense enough to be almost human despite his near-perfection in other aspects; his servant Stephen is an OK comic foil; the Princess is likeable and brave and the tragic Countess is also admirable. The slimy French villain is perhaps a bit too stock and over the top; but what do you expect? The prose is efficient, a bit on the wordy side but not at the expense of readability. Certainly this is not a book that demands revival, but it's still a book I'm happy enough to have encountered.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An Old Fantasy Masterwork: Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

a review by Rich Horton

This probably doesn't really qualify as an old "Bestseller", nor certainly does Dunsany qualify as "forgotten", but these books (six are considered here) were certainly old, and though Dunsany is not forgotten he is perhaps less read these days than he deserves. This is a review first published in 2000 at SF Site, with slight revisions.

Lord Dunsany's full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany (of the Irish peerage). His niece was Lady Violet Powell, nee Pakenham, the wife of the great novelist Anthony Powell and the sister of the notorious Earl of Longford. Lady Violet's memoirs include a depiction of time spent in Lord Dunsany's somewhat old-fashioned Irish home.

Lord Dunsany is widely regarded as a seminal 20th-century writer of fantasy, the originator of many of the tropes we see in story after story, and a master stylist. However, he is not all that widely read any more (or so it seems to me). Speaking for myself, prior to receiving this collection for review (back in 2000), I had read only the odd story or three that I found reprinted in Weird Tales or some anthology. My copy of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy reprint of The King of Elfland's Daughter is still mouldering on a shelf in my basement, shockingly unread. Perhaps I could have been forgiven if I had thought that Dunsany might be more of an "originator" than a "keeper," or that his reputation as a "stylist" might be built on prose more ornate and flowery than is much appreciated these days.

Well, this new collection, the second in Millennium's much to be praised series of Fantasy Masterworks (a companion to their excellent SF Masterworks series), would seem to have been intended to reach readers like me, and to set Dunsany's record straight. And so it does: the best stories in this book are excellent, written in lovely prose that is indeed ornate, but to good effect, often rounded off with an ironic barb, stuffed with lush images, and suffused with the odour of "regret," which Michael Swanwick has called central to "Hard Fantasy." And the bulk of the stories here are excellent or just a step below.

That said, a few caveats are necessary regarding this particular edition. My main issue is with the presentation of the stories. For a major writer like Dunsany, dead these 43 years, I think a collection of this nature should include at least a small amount of critical/biographical/bibliographical apparatus. I'd have liked to see an introduction discussing the history of these stories, and discussing the rest of Dunsany's career. And I'd have liked to see a longer biographical treatment than the brief paragraph on the back cover. (I might also add that there were rather more typos than I like in the stories themselves.) I suppose, however, that we should be happy with any such large collection, and with such a reasonable price as well.

My second caveat is more in the nature of a warning. This book collects Dunsany's first six collections of fantasy stories: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, A Dreamer's Tales, The Book of Wonder, and The Last Book of Wonder. For some reason, The Gods of Pegana, Dunsany's first book (1905), is presented last. Time and the Gods, his second book (1906), is presented first. I chose to read the collection in order of writing, and frankly I almost bogged down in the first two books. The Gods of Pegana is a collection of closely linked fragments, dealing almost entirely with the title beings. As an imaginative creation, the book is interesting, but there is no plot, and the "gods" did not come to life for me. Time and the Gods consists of less closely linked stories, but it is still dealing with, essentially, faux "creation myths," and varieties of "Just So Stories." I remained mostly unconvinced. In addition, in these collections Dunsany seemed more prone to his style descending to what might be called "forsoothery," as with so many bad Dunsany imitators. There are a few high points, such as "The Cave of Kai," about a King who wishes to be remembered, "The Relenting of Sarnidac," about a dwarf who is mistaken for a god, and especially the last two stories. "The Dreams of a Prophet" is a brief piece, memorable mainly for a real stinger of a line. "The Journeys of the King" is the longest story in the entire (larger) collection: a moving account of a dying King and the prophets who tell him where he will go on his "last journey."

Thus, I would recommend leaving the two earlier collections until later, or perhaps only sampling them. Dunsany seemed to hit his stride with the remarkable stories in The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908). In these stories the focus is on humans. Also, they incorporate actual plots. There is still the ornate writing, but put to better effect. Furthermore, for all that it is ornate, it is wonderfully balanced. The rhythms, as well as the imagery and the alliteration, are seamless and beautiful. The gods and other odd beings are still present. "The Sword of Welleran" is one of the best, about a once war-like city, now guarded only by the statues of the heroes of its past. Another astounding story is "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save by Sacnoth," which would be memorable for its glorious title alone. The story itself is a veritable prototype of hundreds of followers in the genre: the land is troubled by an evil wizard who can only be vanquished by a miraculous weapon, the sword Sacnoth, so our hero literally wrests the sword from the spine of an alligator, then sets out on his quest to the "fortress unvanquishable."

The stories continue in similar modes through the rest of the six books included. As time goes on, Dunsany makes connections with Earth more explicit, and by the last couple of books much effort is spent mourning the departure of "Romance," pushed out by modern times, industry and suburbs and so on. (One amusing story, "A Tale of London," turns the tables somewhat, presenting a vision of a marvelous London from the viewpoint of a Sultan's hashish smoker.) Certainly these books were of their time -- just prior to the First World War.

The dominant fantasy landscape here is vaguely Oriental cum Arabic. Much is made of trackless deserts, wondrous cities with their Minarets and Sultans and robed inhabitants, the smoking of hashish, etc.  The dominant mood is regret for what is lost or about to be lost. And most of the stories end sadly. The hand of fate lies heavy on the characters herein. The most common length is very short: 1000 to 2000 words or so. But despite the outward sameness, and with the exception of the weaker earlier books, I was not bored with the stories, nor did I feel that Dunsany repeated himself. In fact, taken together the stories gain strength. The collections as a whole are almost stronger than their individual parts: a very rare thing for anthologies.

Perhaps a sample or two of Dunsany's prose would be in order. Here is the opening of "The Fall of Babbulkund":

    "I said: 'I will arise now and see Babbulkund, City of Marvel. She is of one age with the Earth, the stars are her sisters. Pharaohs of old time coming conquering from Araby first saw her, a solitary mountain in the desert, and cut the mountain into towers and terraces. They destroyed one of the hills of God, but they made Babbulkund. She is carven, not built, her palaces are one with her terraces, there is neither join nor cleft...'"

From "Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean":

    "Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the East there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind."

Though many of these stories are melancholy, Dunsany is not above dry humour, either the odd dig (on seeing a sheep smoke a pipe: "-- an incident that struck me as unlikely; but in the hills of Sneg I met an honest politician."); or stories with sharply ironic points, or pure entertainments, such as the stories about the pirate Shard, which are among the best collected here ("The Loot of Bombasharna" and "A Story of Land and Sea"). All in all this is as fine an extended collection of fiction as I've seen in a considerable period.

Besides the virtues of the stories themselves, they are significant influences on the fantasy and even the SF of our time. The most obvious derivative works are the many sword and sorcery tales which borrow, too often ineffectively, the quasi-Oriental settings, the quest plots, and broad echoes of Dunsany's prose style. But the influences run elsewhere: certainly Leigh Brackett's Martian landscapes owe something to Dunsany. And even a nominally "hard SF" writer like Arthur C. Clarke (quoted on the back cover calling Dunsany "One of the greatest writers of this century") shows in his romantic visions a distinct heritage from these fantasies.

I recommend this collection of exotic and colourful fantasies to readers interested in the originals from which much contemporary sword and sorcery derive, to those interested in a true master of English prose of the older style, and to those ready to immerse themselves in a melancholy and wholly different world view. Thoroughly involving.