Category: Books

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

 

I’ve compared Rinehart to Agatha Christie in previous reviews of her books. Rinehart was essentially America’s answer to the British crime novelist, but who employed a more light-hearted ambiance. Her characters, befitting early-20th-century, upstart America, are far removed from the stuffy snobs who populate most Christie stories.

But in reading Rinehart’s 1909 novel (her second, after The Circular Staircase), The Man in Lower Ten, I was put in mind of another Brit — Alfred Hitchcock. Rinehart’s plot involves romance, murder aboard a train, and police hunting an innocent man. Can anyone say, The 39 Steps? Or, The Lady Vanishes? *

I confess that Rinehart’s heavy use of century-old American colloquialisms and parlance often defeats me, but her jaunty tone and colorful characters override any linguistic obstacles.

 

* Rinehart’s book predates the written and film versions of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes — and everything published by Christie.

 

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by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

I’m guessing that, like most casual readers, my knowledge of author Edgar Rice Burroughs can be summed up like this: Oh yeah, the guy who wrote Tarzan books.

Turns out Burroughs was a bit more ambitious than that. Turns out he was quite political. But I digress.

The Moon Maid is part one of a trilogy that Burroughs published in the 1920s. On the surface (pun intended), the story depicts a spaceship crew of five landing on Earth’s satellite and discovering a hidden world of warring creatures living in the moon’s interior. There are good guys and bad guys, and our hero finds love with the titular moon maid, a beautiful princess. Pretty standard stuff, what they used to call “boys’ adventure tales.” At least, that was my impression.

But because I was — and still am, really — ignorant about Burroughs’s political leanings, I’m going to conclude this brief review with a Moon Maid summation lifted from a Web site dedicated to Burroughs’s work:

 

The Moon Maid trilogy, which even the fans of Burroughs must admit is rather crude, blunt, or unpolished compared to his other works, has a larger soul and message: Be Prepared! Beware the Politicians! Do Not Disarm! Avoid Communists! Avoid authoritarian rule! Honor and Love Thy Wife! Struggle Against Dictators! Honor Family and Friends! Love Thy Country! Be Free and Independent! Be willing to Fight for One’s Beliefs!

Burroughs made no bones about his political leanings or his fear for the future — not only for America but the world at large. Or, as others might say, perhaps I’m reading too much into The Moon Maid — after all it might be as simple as ERB [Burroughs] the working man artfully figuring out a way to sell a story which had been rejected.

 

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by Ethel Lina White

grouchyeditor.com spiral

 

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

That line sums up The Spiral Staircase, Ethel Lina White’s 1933 whodunit that inspired a classic movie starring Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore.

Staircase is a quintessential “cozy mystery” because it checks all the boxes: the obligatory dark, stormy night; a cast of colorful characters who disappear, one by one, from a creepy mansion; a plucky heroine; numerous shady suspects.

Who is killing young girls in the vicinity of an isolated house? Is it the masculine/feminine nurse? The not-so-bedridden, cantankerous old matron? The playful playboy? Is Helen the servant girl destined to be the next victim?

White might not be in Agatha Christie’s league as a writer, but in terms of giving the reader exactly what he or she wants, The Spiral Staircase is topflight.

 

Film vs. Book:

  • The 1946 Robert Siodmak movie made several improvements to White’s novel — the killer’s motivation, for one. In the film, the murderer seeks to rid the world of “imperfect” women. McGuire’s servant girl is mute; not so in the book. Improbably, the novel’s killer is motivated by some nonsense about overpopulation.
  • The titular spiral staircase is more prominent in the film. The book was originally, more aptly, titled Some Must Watch.
  • Siodmak’s film was clearly an inspiration for director Bob Clark’s 1974 movie Black Christmas (the infamous “eyeball” shot; the killer is in the house!).

 

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by Barry Eisler

 

I guess if you’re a fan of this kind of fiction (I generally am not), you could do worse than the generically titled The Chaos Kind. Or perhaps not.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: We meet a tough-guy operative named Dox, a sniper who works for the government and who is very tough. But he is hilarious; so hilarious, in fact, that we are repeatedly reminded of his great wit. We also meet a deaf man who is likewise a hired killer and who is even tougher than Dox. And we meet a hulking man who might be the toughest of them all.

And the women! Oh, my, these members of the killing team might seem girly on the outside, but don’t you dare mess with them. In some ways, they are even tougher than the men!

But not to worry; despite their violent skills, deep down they all have hearts of gold. They like animals, young children, and victims of sexual abuse. In this book, they are out to save the world from a Jeffrey Epstein-like predator/mogul who has videos of powerful men abusing young girls. There are lots of standoffs and shootouts.

Problem is, the characters are all so interchangeable, all so one-dimensional, that reading the book is a mind-numbing waste of time.

 

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by Julian Sancton

grouchyeditor.com Madhouse

 

Madhouse depicts an amazing, grueling adventure of which I had never heard. Why is that? I suspect that, if ever someone decides to make a movie of this harrowing ordeal, only then will it stick to the public imagination.

In short, what happened was this: In 1897, the converted whaler Belgica set sail from Belgium to Antarctica, hoping to conduct scientific research and make history by penetrating deep into the southern continent. Early in 1898, the ship became wedged in pack-ice. There it sat, crew aboard, for nearly a year.

Sancton relies heavily on officer diaries to describe the frigid nightmare that followed, in particular the words of Frederick Cook, the colorful American who served as ship’s doctor, and the strange Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who would later become a world-famous explorer.

 

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by Agatha Christie

 

Darn the luck! I think I might have spoiled the “big twist” in Endless Night for myself by (stupidly) reading an article about the novel in which the writer likened it to one of Agatha Christie’s most famous books, which includes an ingenious surprise that is justly canonized in the annals of detective fiction. “Unreliable narrator,” anyone? Because I read that article before sitting down with Endless Night, I will never know how fooled I might have been by Christie’s clever narration.

And darn your luck. Because you are reading this post, I might have just spoiled the twist for you, as well.

Some of Christie’s best novels have nothing to do with Hercule Poirot, nothing to do with Miss Marple. Like And Then There Were None and Crooked House, Endless Night is a standalone that represents Christie at the top of her game.

(A plot synopsis here? Nah … I’ve already said too much.)

 

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by Jeanine Cummins

 

American Dirt is nothing if not controversial, what with its white, European-American author telling the tale of a middle-class Mexican woman whose life is upended — to put it mildly — and who chooses to make a harrowing journey from Acapulco to Arizona with her eight-year-old son in tow. Illegally.

The book’s critics say Cummins took pains to make the story palatable for American readers, and that her heroine, Lydia, is an unrepresentative, atypical immigrant. The critics might be right. What the hell do I know?

The novel was a bestseller last year. But all hell broke loose upon its publication.

The uproar over Dirt brings to mind James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which came under fire for being hyped as a memoir when, in fact, it was fiction. Fact-based or fabricated, Frey had written a remarkable book. Pieces was a marketing failure, not a writing failure.

I can only comment on what I read in American Dirt, and as a work of fiction, it’s a superb thriller.

As for the novel’s politics, yes, it is very one-sided, very pro-immigrant and pro-immigration. There is even one none-too-subtle jab at Trump. But immigration is a huge story, with many subplots.

Someone else could write an equally moving, largely anti-immigration story, I’m sure. A story about an illegal immigrant, a career criminal who wreaks havoc on a small American border town, for example.

American Dirt simply isn’t that story.

 

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by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

 

Here’s the thing about current-affairs books — they tend to have a short shelf life. What was eye-opening in 2018 can feel ho-hum today. If you happen to be a news junkie, like me, reading The Coddling of the American Mind in 2021 feels like revisiting old news, even though the book is just a few years old.

And yet that’s a compliment to the authors. So much of what they describe in Coddling — concepts that seemed fresh in 2018 — is now omnipresent on media news outlets. That’s a testament to their powers of persuasion.

What Lukianoff and Haidt describe (in case you haven’t guessed from the title) is the concept of “safetyism” and its harmful effects on society in general, and schools in particular. Safetyism, they claim, is introduced by over-protective parents, continued by college administrators, and then spread throughout the greater society. Hence, the “snowflake.” Hence, social problems galore.

But you probably already knew that. You, like me, should have read this book in 2018.

 

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by Neal Gabler

 

Gabler spent years researching and writing this mammoth biography of the man who, arguably, influenced 20th-century American culture more than anyone else. And Gabler’s painstaking work clearly shows in the finished book. Disney, a notorious workaholic, would possibly approve. I say “possibly” because the man who gave us Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Disneyland was also a notorious perfectionist.

I have a few of my own nitpicks, along with some praise:

 

Pros:

 

It felt as though two-thirds of the book dealt with two subjects — the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the creation of Disneyland. Along with Mickey Mouse, these were Disney’s milestone achievements, so the attention is welcome and warranted.

Gabler’s biography seems fair and balanced. Over the years, Disney has been accused of sanitizing pop culture by removing its edge. He has also been charged with anti-Semitism, racism, and other isms. Gabler addresses those charges, albeit not at great length, and doesn’t shy from depicting Disney warts and all.

 

Cons:

 

I don’t know about you, but what most interests me about Walt Disney is his creative life. Unfortunately, the bulk of Triumph seems more attuned to business majors. There are endless pages about recalcitrant bankers, potential investors, striking employees, and other finance-related matters. You get the sense that Disney was less a creative visionary than a committed capitalist. If so, it was out of necessity rather than desire.

It would have been nice to have more detail about Disney the private man. But really, I got the impression that the man who led “the triumph of the American imagination” was, in day-to-day life, a bit dull. No carousing or womanizing or politics or scandal of any sort. He comes off as someone you’d admire, but probably not care to socialize with.

 

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by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy, or “magical realism” when the story is aimed at adults, is not my favorite literary genre. For instance, I was unmoved by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s much-praised, magical-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude. But there are exceptions to my rule.

I find that if I like this kind of stuff, it’s usually because the tale is told from a child’s point of view (or an adult recalling his or her childhood). That’s what I liked about the Harry Potter books, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Gaiman’s short novel is a mashup of childhood nostalgia (To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind) and terrors triggered by something out-of-this-world (as in Something Wicked). Ocean’s narrator, now middle-aged, recalls his 7-year-old self encountering a trio of magical female neighbors. The women help him fend off all manner of demons, both fantastic and all-too-real.

Perhaps I’m just an unimaginative, jaded adult, but I enjoyed the book for its circa 1960s nostalgia. Not so much for its magical mumbo jumbo.

 

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