Archive for the ‘Book Review (Non SF)’ Category

Helix: Plague of Ghouls – Pat Flewwelling (2016)

August 17, 2017

When I completed Blight of Exiles, the first novel in Pat Flewwelling’s Helix trilogy I was just too busy with life events to sit down and write a proper review, much to my regret. But I knew I’d have another crack before long with this, Plague of Ghouls, the second in the series.

The Helix series is based on the lycanthropic Wyrd Council that tries to control and keep secret the existence of contemporary werewolves and other mutants that have sprung up due to some genetic tampering. The shadow group has a hierarchy of sorts and have agents that go on missions to both enlist newfound members and contain rogue brethren.

The first novel introduced our protagonist, Ishmael, who was sacked and thrown onto an abandoned remote resort where both good and evil mutations were pitted against each other, the result of an attempt at a cure gone awry.

This novel is an immediate follow up to the first where the survivors including Ishmael are free again, but somewhat still under the control of the Council. When a series of mysterious deaths occur within short distance of a small town, werewolves are suspected and the Council wants to find out exactly what is going on. Are rogue werewolves scurrying unchecked? If so, any public evidence can undermine the entire secret of their existence which would imperil all members.

We are introduced to a new human character, Hector Two-Trees, an indigenous investigator sent by the Council to probe the murders and determine if one or more of the pack were involved. Meanwhile Ishmael worries if some of his own offspring were involved as well as conspiracy elements within the Council.

Part Horror, part Science Fiction and part Criminal Mystery, the novel is rich with indigenous lore, medical and genetic discourse and good old fashion crime scene investigation. While lycanthropes (and variants) rule there are plenty of other creatures including hyenas, coyotes, wendigo’s and hybrids among them all. It’s all fast paced with characters endlessly transforming or in transitional stages. The interrelationships are complex (as will explain next), with lots of betrayals, back stabbing (literal and otherwise), bad blood (literal and otherwise) and past history among the characters.

My one criticism with the novel is the same problem I had with the first in that it is character heavy. Perhaps it is just a personal peeve but I found there were just too many characters for my liking and trying to remember them all, much less their particular situation or stance at any point in the story was hard to keep track of. Making matters more confusing was the fact that depending on what form some of the characters are in at a particular time, they go by different names and identities. The central characters are well defined which keeps me in the story but I found a number of the minor characters distracting and even intruding on the flow at times. Some of those minor characters were interesting and could have been fleshed out more by paring many of the negligible and less interesting ones.

I found latter half, once everything was more clearly established and the story becomes more focused, to be much more satisfying. So keep with it if you find it a bit slow at first. And do read Blight of Exiles before Plague of Ghouls as you do need most of that background to make sense of the characters despite my still having a few problems in that area.

The ending not only satisfyingly clears up the mystery but does so with a horrific conclusion and cliff hanger that will have me back for the third installment which should be released soon.

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Plans Diaboliques – Dany Dagenais (2016)

June 21, 2017

Not my usual reading fare, but in the name of national linguistic unity I thought I’d read a French book for a change and do my part to coalesce the Two Solitudes here in the Great White North. I also needed to reinvigorate those brain cells dedicated to that task as I get to practice my French oral deftness at work but rarely do any reading in the language. I do read French on occasion but not as much as I did in elementary and high school when I hated doing it. At that time I was even forced to read a few novels as part of the curriculum, but hardly the types of novel that pique my interests. Being so out of practice, what I needed was something I could digest in smaller doses like a collection of short stories. Luckily I happened to picke up just that from author Dany Dagenais at a local comic convention last year. Plans Diaboliques contains an entertaining assortment of stories that range between horror, science fiction and just a touch of the bizarre in snippets that are easy enough to understand and teach me a few things along the way.

The pocket sized glossy softcover – who’s uncredited cover artwork should be attributed to Sv Bell judging by some of his previous work – comes in at a moderate 156 pages contains the following eight stories

6 Degrés de Séparation: “6 Degrees of Separation”

A fast paced alien parasite story in which a neck burrowing, tentacled invader hops from one person to another chasing some ultimate unknown goal. As new characters are introduced they just as soon become the next host for the alien and are then used bring the alien one step closer to that goal. But’s that goal remains a mystery during the deadly journey.

Destin: “Destiny”

A simple but entertaining take on a visit to a clairvoyant by a highly skeptical woman. Despite some evidence that the gypsy seems to know personal information the skeptic makes a mental checklist of the typical ploys and tactics used by con artists to garner repeat business. When the psychic dispenses the three staples – Money, Love and Death – the woman is satisfied she is a fake. When some of her predictions begin to become true in a impossibly short time the woman steadfastly she refuses to believe the last ominous one.

La Chose Dans Le Sous-Sol: “The Thing in the Basement”

One of the longer stories in the collection about a man who discovers a … well a “Thing”, in his basement after tracking down the source of a recurring noise. Transitioning from fear to fatherly concern, the relationship develops until the man decides to introduce his new friend to the woman who recently left him, convinced that it was just a misunderstanding.

Le Fossoyeur: “The Gravedigger”

What does a young gravedigger do when he starts hearing shouts and banging coming from the coffin he is about to inter? A highly predictable outcome but the scant few pages make for a fun few minutes of reading.

Le Banquet: “The Banquet”

When little oversized orphan Xavier finally gets adopted by a wealthy couple, it appears like a dream come true. Living in a mansion, lavished with gifts, taking exotic vacations on a personal jet are all perks bestowed upon him by his new parents. But having a personal chef attend to his every culinary whim is the best fringe benefit of living the high life. He can hardly wait for the big annual feast his parents arrange for all their friends.

Une Bonne Journee “A Good Day”

A little magic restores a meat butchers vigor to run his business despite a few bad apple customers who harangue and complain in the face of all his efforts to please. An odd form of revenge in this decidedly weird tale.

Marie-Jeanne “Mary-Jane”

When young Thomas and his girlfriend are caught indulging on a bit of weed by the girl’s father he is surprised that not only is the father not mad, but has a tale to tell of his own drug laced adventures. But the father, barely able to contain his annoyance with greedy and simple-minded Thomas, has a surprise and hallucinatory ending.

La Thérapie de George le Peureux “Scared George’s Therapy”

George has a fear complex that bundles more than a few phobias. In fact his panic spans to just about everything you can imagine. As he pours his heart out to the patrons in a local bar, rather than pity the poor man, they give him a solution. One that changes his life in the literal sense.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection (available at indiepress.net and look forward to reading his next collection – Slinger Sister – which I also recently picked up. Et je suis sûr que mes compétences en lecture française se sont améliorées.

Psycho – Robert Bloch (1959)

August 9, 2016

Psycho-BlochMultifaceted writer Robert Bloch has excelled in just about every genre of literature, winning a Bram Stoker award for his horror, a World Fantasy award, as well as a Hugo for the genre for which he is probably best known overall; science fiction. But without a doubt his biggest hit came with the novel Psycho which was  adapted to film a year after publication by Alfred Hitchcock into the iconic thriller masterpiece.

As I assume most readers here are familiar with the movie adaption I won’t bother with an overdrawn synopsis of the plot. Besides, it’s not one of those stories you can give almost any detail without spoiling some aspect of the story. Suffice to say that’s it’s one of the all time greatest horror thrillers and is just as popular today as it was back then. But as the classic movie adaptation has far surpassed the original novel in popularity, two questions come to mind. The first question is whether the source novel is as good as the movie on it’s own merits and the second question is how close is the Hitch’s adaptation to the source?

Just as there are a number of clues in the movie that hint at Norman’s relationship with his mother, so too does the novel tease readers on the matter. While deftly skirting the truth, reading between the lines of both Norman Bates’ spoken dialog and the events as portrayed in the novel, the cat is never let out of the bag, yet those already in the know can see the foundations of the truth. Yes, the novel is just as finely crafted as the movie and deserving as much respect as the film. The written form is even better suited to having the reader exactly in tune to Norman’s perspective on things which of course deviates from reality in a few regards.

Comparing the movie to the source we find a mix with a significant portion of the movie script closely following the original for much of the story, but at the same time diverging significantly for particular aspects. The first relatively big change is the physical appearance of Norman Bates himself, in that the slim, suave and tidy Norman in the film as portrayed by Anthony Perkins was actually an oafish, overweight alcoholic in denial here. It was odd reading those few descriptive passages of Norman as we’re all so familiar with Perkins’ rendition. There are a few small changes in events and particulars, but none of any real significance to the major plot.

Like any great thriller, the greatest enjoyment is when you are first introduced to it, regardless of format. Given that, I would say that anyone unfamiliar with the movie may just as well start with this novel and enjoy the surprise ending as originally conceived. But do get to watch the movie if you haven’t already as the performances and imagery in some key sequences are unforgettable.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. Mother is calling…

Memos from Purgatory – Harlan Ellison (1961)

March 21, 2016

Memos From PurgatoryI’ve always enjoyed, if not loved Harlan Ellison’s writing. Always controversial, sometimes golden hearted, sometimes grade A  jackass, a leading social rights crusader and staunch supporter of the ERA only to them negate all that credence in a shocking infantile public display of sexual objectification (by groping fellow science fiction grand master Connie Willis onstage at a Worldcon awards ceremony no less). Spanning a career over 60 years and garnering every conceivable genre award imaginable, his talents extend to award winning television screenplays and even comics.

He is vocal on every subject that touches rights and freedoms, a voice for writers and pay equity, and with a litigious bent, he’ll make sure you notice him if you ever cross him in any way. He’s pretty hard to ignore and while you may disagree with some of his ideals, you have to respect the writing.

He’s one of the few authors for whom I can read any of his speculative fiction as well as essays (for example his discourses on television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat).

His introductions are sometimes just as entertaining (and volatile) as the book’s content. All this to say that he is one of those writers for whom I will read (and enjoy) anything he writes, on any topic, in any genre or style.

Memos from Purgatory is one of his earliest books, following in the vein of his first book Web of the City where Ellison revisits the topic of juvenile delinquency and street gangs. But this time it is a non-fiction recounting of his few weeks infiltrating a New York gang for the sole purpose of documenting the goings-on, and indeed writing this book. As circumstances would later dictate, the book became a two-parter, when years later the remnants of his gang days come back to haunt him.

He begins by moving into hostile neighborhood in 1954 where he quickly wriggles his way into a teen gang, The Barons. He rapidly digests the culture, rules, and roles of all the hopeless souls that inevitably fall prey to such gangs, sometimes because there is nothing else to occupy the time, sometimes by sheer necessity and choosing the lesser of alternate evils. There among the others with nicknames like Pooch, Flo, and Fish he transforms into ‘Cheech’ Beldone for a number of weeks. But in order to be a member of the gang he must endure several initiation rites, making new friends and enemies along the way. His final initiation test is to take part in a rumble against a rival gang, and when that day arrives, having absorbed all he could handle and then some, takes a beating and an exit to gang life, in that order.

The world of the gang life is richly described in terms of the anguish and misery that most if not all of his new found ‘friends’ toil in. A world of homemade ‘zip guns’ (when the real thing is not available), junkie fixes, ad-hoc leadership and stringent turf boundaries. A grimy existence, temporary for the author, but not those who have to live in the ghettos. Above all else is the violence from both within and outside the confines of his gang Harsh,unrelenting and sometimes deadly.

Once Harlan wrote the book the first time around, he then took to holding public lectures about his experience and even going on television at some point. Part of his lectures included shocasing his cache of weapon which included an unregistered gun. It was holding onto that gun that led to his arrest five years later and then being thrown in jail overnight because of that illegal (yet explicable) faux pas.

While he did garner some sympathy even from the arresting officers, he then met a foe that for a time seemed just as fierce as his gangland rivals; the mind bending legal system and how ‘justice’ is meted. The latter half of the book (now edited to include this second chapter) describes in sordid detail the de-humanization sustained once caught by the system, where “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean you have to be treated with kid gloves until you get that verdict. Abased equally with some real criminals, drunks, psychotics, and others probably just as innocent (if not just as stupid) people as he was, they are all human trash for that time.

The one common thread to the entire book is the utter despair he found in both situations, neither of which some innocent people can escape as he was able to do, freely being able to simply move back to a decent neighborhood when it was time to leave the gang, and having friends being able to come up with a sizeable bail when he needed out of jail (the crime subsequently being stricken from his record).

I have to admit that while the reading was interesting, I found it nowhere nearly as compelling as all his other books and stories I’ve read over the years (over a dozen books including The Essential Ellison, a massive collection of his then 35 year career of short stories and novellas). While the energetic dynamo of a writer is in evidence, he was still a bit green at this point in his profession. A good book but not as nuanced and seasoned as the writer most of us are familiar with. So with some caution, I would say that this book is fine for Ellison fans, but if you’re not familiar with him there are many other books of his you really should be reading before this one.

While I have not seen it myself, the initial story was optioned and picked up as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, however it was significantly altered from what he wrote.

And last but not least, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to my one and only bizarre encounter with the man himself and how that encounter presented it’s own typical Ellison dichotomy. You can find it here, but you’ll have to scroll way down into my lengthy 2006 Worldcon report (and excuse my early faltering attempts at blog writing): https://lazaruslair.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/7/

Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson (1958)

March 5, 2016

A Stir of EchoesRichard Matheson not only established himself as one of the greatest writers of horror fiction with his seminal novel “I am Legend” (adapted to screen in three distinctly different, yet entertaining movies) but also cemented his stature as one of the greatest genre television writers having scripted many classic episodes for the original The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Night Gallery, his own series, Circle of Fear and even wrote Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel  about the ghostly 18 wheeler menacing a man driving a car on a desolate highway.

A blend of mystery, horror and science fiction, his stories and novels have been widely adapted to the silver screen as well with adaptations that include The Incredible Shrinking Man (The Shrinking Man), Somewhere in Time (Bid Time Return), The Legend of Hell House (Hell House), What Dreams May Come and the more recent Real Steel.

With all of the above writing credentials you could imagine the high expectations I had for Stir of Echoes, a novel I’d squirreled away for a rainy day and one I swore I would read before watching the movie adaptation I have sitting on DVD shelves.

Tom Wallace develops ESP like powers after being innocently hypnotized by his brother in-law at a dinner party despite being assured that he was released from the hypnotic trance. When he begins seeing late night apparitions of a mysterious black dressed woman in his house, he and his expectant wife begin a rapid descent into an uncertain and nerve-wracking household. As his abilities intensify, his cognitive powers begin to peer into the thoughts and visions of his fellow neighbors and the landlords next door. Eventually Toms capabilities begin to have him react to particular objects upon touch.

The social get-togethers with two neighbor couples exude nuances of infidelity, naivety, lust and mistrust. These fragile relationships among the three couples soon fall apart once Tom’s inferences boil to the surface. Meanwhile the status of former tenant, a sister of the woman who is his current landlord living with a foreboding husband, becomes a concern as they learn of the last tenant’s abrupt departure and lack of communication with anyone since.

Toms and his wife, now in a fragile bond themselves, start to piece together the clues leading to conjectures that may explain the mystery of the former tenant. When their supposed gruesome fate is proven to be conclusive, they confront the guilty party, only to find one more surprise.

I found the first half of the novel to be fairly timid, focusing more on Tom and his wife’s struggles with his new found powers rather the the obvious mystery at hand. The novel does pick up interest and intrigue as they concentrate more on the meaning of his perceptions, but the buildup falls flat at the end, and suffers doubly when presented with a contrived surprise ending that is both clumsy and a cheat. While entertaining, I expected more from Matheson, especially the ending.

I have both the Stir of Echoes movie and it’s sequel Stir of Echoes 2 (A.K.A Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming) sitting on my shelves and will be watching them sometime soon, if for no other reason than to hope that they improved on that unsavory ending.

11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011)

March 7, 2015

11-22-63-coverNever one to be pegged into a hole, horror meister Stephen King has dabbled into many other genres before including mystery (The Colorado Kid) and fantasy (The Dark Tower series) and even plain drama (The Shawshank Redemption). He even wrote the underrated science fiction The Running Man, under his Richard Bachman non de plume. But writing a science fiction time travel story was stretch even for him. And what better topic to tackle than the assassination of JFK, one of the most controversial and conspiracy ladled event in history.

Jake Epping is a simple, middle of the road school teacher when Al, the owner of his favorite dinner, confronts him with an impossible yet incontrovertible time travel portal that he stumbled upon at the back of his storage room. The quirk of the portal is that it places travelers to a specific time and place, 11:58 a.m. September 9,1958, Lisbon Falls, Maine, every time they enter. Once they return, they have lost exactly two minutes in contemporary time regardless of the time they have spent in the past. Al, now visibly order after having just returned from a multi-year trip to the past, then tells James of his master plan to reconcile one of recent history’s greatest misfortunes, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, an act that he believes could eliminate the Vietnam war and other tragedies.

Al used to make regular pilgrimages to the past, regularly buying extremely cheap meat that he brought back to sell in his dinner. When Al got the idea to make meaningful changes he traced and followed Lee Harvey Oswald up until a short time before the alleged actual shooting, taking detailed notes of every aspect he could, but not being able to avert the killing himself. Now on his deathbed, he wants Jake to take his notes and follow through to change history.

With some trepidation Jake agrees, but only by first trying to correct another crime earlier, opting to change the life of one of his former students. But changing history is tricky business. The harmonic forces of nature fight back and the bigger the change you’re trying to effect the greater the push back. After averting a murder that would impact the formative years of his future student, Jake returns only to learn that while he did positively impact his students conditions growing up, the end result was not what he expected.

But now convinced he could can change history, he decides to forge ahead (well, not ahead, behind in fact) and sacrifice going back to 1958 again, and then living out the intervening years until the title date of 22nd November 1963, the date that Kennedy was killed. Jake takes on an entirely new persona in the past, but road to complete his mission does not only encounter natural forces putting up stumbling blocks, life gets in the way. Jake discovers that the past can be quite, comforting and innocent place, devoid of modern nuisances. And then he meets Sadie…

Clocking in at 840 odd pages 11/22/63 is what I like to call a Brick novel. The second trip back for the actual Kennedy mission starts only slightly before halfway point of novel. So the novel is really two journeys, the first laying the foundation and some of the ground rules for time travel. That is not to say that this is a padded novel. King manages to hold interest throughout, most of it being quite riveting. If anything, the pace loses a bit of steam after the ‘event’ and some tough decisions that have to be made by Jake. But the distinction between the first and second time travel trips can almost be considered as two great stories for the price of one, both trips peppered with anecdotal historical events which in themselves can be engaging. In short, another great King novel.

The Phantom: The Hydra Monster (1973)

December 29, 2014

The Phantom - The Hydra MonsterLee Falk’s action hero The Phantom was at one point one of the most read syndicated Sunday comic strips with a readership that numbered in the tens of millions. Predating superheroes like Superman and Batman with a 1936 debut, The Phantom’s adventures continue to be published  today. While the character appears to be immortal sporting such nicknames as “The Ghost Who Walks”, in actual fact Kit Walker is just a regular guy who currently bears the costume that has been passed from one generation to another in the Walker family going back hundreds of years. Well ‘regular guy’ may be stretching it a bit for a hero who’s companion and sidekick is a wolf named Devil and who owns properties around the world (usually one being conveniently located wherever his latest case takes him) and has his main domicile in a Skull shaped cave in the Amazon jungle.

The Hydra Monster is one of a series of Phantom novels that were published in the 70’s. Although the cover highlights “Lee Falk’s original story”, this particular story was not written by Falk himself but is instead credited to Frank S. Shawn in the inside cover. (Falk is credited with other novels in this series.)

The ‘Hydra Monster’ referred to in the title is no creature, but rather the name of a global crime organization and one time nemesis of past Phantoms. The Hydra is a mythological reference to the multi-headed snake that grows a new head whenever one is cut off. In this case it embodies the notion that this network of criminals can never be brought down as any successful attempt to nab  members is simply replaced by new members elsewhere.

The novel is actually centered on an offshoot faction of Hydra, called the Vultures. As their name implies, the Vultures are opportunistic in that they swoop into areas of the globe having recently succumbed to any great disaster. Taking advantage of the fact that authorities are busy with duties beside crime fighting under such duress, the Vultures descend and brazenly liquidate museums or other national treasures.

One of the oddities of the novel is that Kit is often not in Phantom costume at all, but simply a ‘man about the world’ using connections and other means to target this sudden resurgence of Hydra. There are still plenty of gun battles, fist fights and a lot of sleuthing as well as visiting faraway destinations to spice up the action. There are even a few bona fide surprises although they aren’t too hard to figure out before long.

If you like a decent (but somewhat brainless) pulp fix, this’ll do the trick. If nothing else it’s a great way to get reacquainted with a pretty cool character with some great swashbuckling history.

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Larry Tye, 2012)

September 14, 2014

Superman-bookLook. Up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s one of the most iconic characters ever created. It’s Superman.

This latest entry into the history of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic creation has everything you’d expect. Starting from his humble roots in a Baltimore bedroom from the then teenage creators, to becoming the first real comic book mega star, before moving onto all other forms of media from TV to movies. This book chronicles both sides of the printed page, the major milestones in the creators lives and the development and dispersion of the character in all media.

The first few chapters goes into detail how the boys finally got publisher DC comics to buy their little piece of the super character long before his origins, powers and weaknesses were fully developed. Even his strength varied greatly over the years, from the simplistic “Faster than a speeding locomotive and able to leap tall buildings” (yes, he could not even really fly in those early days) to having the almost insuperable power to move planets and suns to eventually having to tone down his powers in order to make some things challengeable and have more interesting stories.

Interest in the character himself alone would quickly fizzle out were it not for the many other secondary characters surrounding him including his parents (both adoptive and birth), friends, and lovers, naturally with emphasis on Lois Lane who dominates the Superman pages second only to the man himself, and these are covered in detail as well.

When it came to the early years of Superman, the original TV series starring George Reeves was almost as influential as the comics themselves and in some ways more so. The mysterious circumstances of the actors death is just a small part of the drama before and behind the camera lens that are discussed, conspiracy theories and all.

Fact is, Superman, the supporting characters, and all the events they lived through on the printed pare were rarely consistent because of the many writers who helmed all the comics. But this book doesn’t only do a great job of pointing out these deviations. When DC decided it was high time to make things ‘correct’ not only in the Superman universe but all the other comic characters in it’s stable it came up with the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries that not only described the many parallel universes it devised to explain the inconsistencies, but created a cataclysmic solution to collapsing it all into one definitive universe. This book does helps sort out the end state for Superman as a result of Crisis. After Crisis, the next big ‘change’ in the Superman story was another ‘reset’ with the new Man of Steel series created by John Byrne in 1986, which, for a while at least, redefined Superman.

Of course the series of Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves are here as are the more recent Lois and Clark and Smallville TV shows. Some of the more interesting aspects of these not only include the constraints placed on the show makers, but how one of the shows haphazardly ended up having Superman killed off in the comics (in as much as a fictitious character can really die in a comic anyway).

Of course, along with success comes controversy and ultimately friction. Those familiar with the comics are probably also familiar with the many legal and moral battles Siegel and Shuster (and then their families after they themselves passed on) launched against DC comics almost as soon as the honeymoon years were over and the treasure trove that the character became was fully realised.  While most of it is well captured here, even a book published only two years ago was not able to fully envelop the lawsuits that continue to snake through the courts even today. Sadly, one cannot escape the fact that the only thing more American that Superman and apple pie is a never ending lawsuit.

But Superman (like the lawsuits) will live on and so will books like these.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield (2013)

May 21, 2014

Chris Hadfield - An Astronaut's Guide to Life on earthThe greatest Canadian contribution to space science is not the space shuttle’s robotic arm system affectionately named Canadarm. Opulently displaying the name “Canada” and our flag every time the shuttle was doing payload manipulations, it was what defined the Canadian presence in space for years. But the Canadarm has been surpassed with our contribution of Chris Hadfield to the astronaut roster. His first two short term flights on shuttle missions were fairly routine (although that too is a misnomer as every flight has some irregularity or crisis to deal with). But his third flight was historic from many aspects. Just being a foreign commander of the ISS for six months comprising ISS mission 35, was commendable on its own. But when he started tweeting, making YouTube videos, and even singing in space, his notoriety, and more importantly the visibility of space exploration, exploded, making him one of the greatest space ambassadors of the modern age, an a Canadian icon.

I picked up a signed copy of his book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” at this years Yuri’s Night (an annual commemoration of Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural human space flight) Ottawa event from the Canadian Space Society’s booth.

The book describes Hadfield’s adventures in space and all it took to get there from his earliest days as a cadet, submitting his candidacy for the Canadian astronaut program, being selected and then working until he reached the ultimate goal of getting into space. We get to read about the mundane and monotonous aspects (and there is a lot more of that on the journey than you would think) as well as the more exciting training preparation aspects.

One difference about this book that differs it from other astronaut and space biographies is that, true to the title, this is really a book as much about Hadfield extorting how one should live their lives in general, and is not only about his space exploration. He goes in great detail about how his positive attitude was a large contributing factor to his success and how he advocates his lifestyle of hard work and dedication, all supplemented by a positive attitude. He makes strong arguments how his attitude was the prime reason behind his success and gives examples of how the wrong attitude has shortened the careers of others.

Which brings us to the main fault of the book. The recurring theme regarding positive attitude is drilled with abundance bordering on being preachy. It becomes a distraction that we have to read over and over when, lets face it, we want to get to the good stuff. It’s not something that will have me not recommending the read, just something that could have been tamed a bit to make the read more pleasant and interesting.

The best part of the book is of course his month long ISS stint and being teamed with two cosmonauts we also learn a lot about Russian culture and how they really do some things so differently from others while at the same time being just as proficient and technologically advanced. He also goes in great detail how he came about using the social networking sites to make the most of his trip and what made his mission there so memorable to so many people enjoying his antics.

I did have one minor quibble, but this was not related to the contents or even the book itself. I bought what was presented to me as a ‘signed book’. But it was one of those books not signed directly, but where a sticker with his signature was applied inside. So technically I have a signed sticker, not a signed book. I just hate it when authors do that. It’s a cheap shortcut and essentially means that they never have to actually handle the book itself and can just sign a bunch of stickers that are later applied to the book. This is really not what a signed book is supposed to represent.

The Dead Ringer – Fredric Brown (1948)

March 2, 2014

The Dead RingerAs fans of Fredric Brown know all too well, there are two professions with which the author was both familiar with and revelled in setting stories using them as a backdrops. The first recurring theme of his was journalism, and by that I mean small time newspaper presses and all the printing technology and jargon that goes along with it. But the other landscape you’re likely to encounter in a Brown story is the old time traveling carnival. And it’s just in such a ‘carney’ that the mystery of The Dead Ringer begins.

When the body of a naked young boy is found in the muddy grounds of the J.C. Hobart traveling carnival show, the ball toss showrunners Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose (simply called “Am”) are slowly drawn into the mystery of the identity of the victim. But the body has other oddities besides it being a total stranger to the nearest townsfolk and the carney worker themselves. The next two victims are even stranger, but there is one connecting thread among all the victims besides the obvious fact that they were all murdered by the same assailant.

Ed’s also got a lot of other things on his mind now that he’s taken a shine to one of the new “posing show” girls. But she’s as great a mystery as the string of murders taking place. Usually one step ahead of the detective working on the case, Ed and Am piece together the mystery, and find out a little more about their fellow carnival family and even a bit more about themselves.

I really love the pulp feel to these stories written back in the forties. While certainly sanitized for readers, you can read enough between the lines to get to the real nitty-gritty of what was happening behind the tarps on the show wagons. What isn’t sanitized and was considered normal for the times was the abundant drinking, smoking and womanizing (not necessarily in that order). You also come to grips what era we are dealing with when you have a character named “Jigaboo” who is a young black boy, although thankfully aside from the name the character is dealt with in a otherwise respectful manner.

The carney experience, while a backdrop, is not as pervasive as other carnival stories, but there is enough of it to savor if that is what you’re looking for. As for the mystery itself, while not a prolific reader of the genre, I can say it sure had me guessing almost right to the end. And there is always an added twist just for good measure.

I also found out right after I read the novel that this was not Brown’s first “Ed and Am” novel, they being featured in the novel The Fabulous Clipjoint written just a year earlier (and also compiled edition, Hunter and Hunted featuring both novels). Had I known, I would have read that first as I do have it on my shelves as I have most of Brown’s bibliography. At least, I know I will enjoy that one just as much, as if I ever doubted I would not like a Fredric Brown story.