The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

I have read a lot of books, probably hundreds, spanning all subjects and most genres. I love reading, and usually carry a book with me wherever I go, which obviously makes doing anything a lot more difficult. I also like recommending books to people and just in general discussing them with anyone. That’s why I’m writing this particular review: as a warning.

The Fifth Sorceress is a terrible book. Probably one of the worst I’ve ever read. The ideas, characters, and most everything else are either cliches or originally awful. I found nothing to like or recommend about this in any way, and regret the time and money wasted on buying and reading any part of it.

The plot is thusly: A group of three evil sorceresses (and ONLY women are evil magic-users in this world) tried to take over the kingdom and were only defeated after a long war. Instead of simply killing them, they were abandoned on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Apparently five are needed to take over the world, and one got away.

Thousands of years later, a young prince named Tristram (who is called the “Chosen One” at birth.  No, I’m not kidding.) is the target of the plot by another sorceress to take their revenge by kidnapping his twin sister and turn her to evil. After Tristan is forced to kill his father by an unmemorable bad guy, he sets out with his wizard friend Wigg(!?) to get his sister back.

There’s a lot of weirdness and bad ideas in these books. For example, magic is divided into two parts: the good Vigors and the evil Vagaries. Only men use the first, of course. Discovering the evil magic turns the sorceresses into sadistic constantly-horny pansexual villains. An oft-quoted line from the book describes it thusly:

“And then, surprisingly, the acute unfulfilled desires had come. One day, while struggling to understand one of the more arcane passages of the Vagaries, she and the others had all felt the unexpected stirrings of their loins. The hugely sexual, needful longings had been intensified by an insanely irresistible desire to inflict those same sexual needs upon others.

Of both genders.”

Oh, the horrors. Normally I’d hesitate to use the word “misogyny’ without good cause, but here there’s a great deal of evidence to support the label. The author seems to have some real issues about women, and isn’t shy about sharing them. I’d write more about it, but the utter lack of of good writing in general has basically acted on my interest or concern for this review the same way a drunk’s urination will destroy a child’s sandcastle, and with the same level of style and taste. Even that tortured and disgusting metaphor is better than The Fifth Sorceress.

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The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

H. P. Lovecraft had a particular style-lots of weirdly descriptive words, edging right up to the description of horrors without ever giving us a clear picture. He also had several themes that he kept coming back to: vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. He had real issues with miscegenation pretty much everyone who wasn’t a white man, including Jews, black people, and people of low class. This fear and influence creeps into almost everything he wrote, and can be a nasty shock to people reading them for the first time.

Author Victor LaValle (who has a pretty Lovecraft-y name himself) grew up reading Howard Phillip Lovecraft, and he didn’t absorb the issues that obsessed the author at first. However, as a young black man it was difficult to overlook. This inspired him to write a story of his own: The Ballad of Black Tom. It deals with vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. Set in New York in 1942, it follows the story of Tommy Tester, a young man who makes his money by making secret deliveries all over the city, as well as by pretending to be a “bluesman” by carrying a guitar  and pretending to play in parts of the City where the sight of a black man is a rarity. On the hunt for a good spot, he is approached by a strange old man, and the real adventure begins.

“Ballad” is not a long book-92 pages, but LaValle packs a lot into it-Tommy is a fun character, and the story does manage to create a feeling of cosmic horror around each corner of the City. It’s not a story about that per se and LaValle doesn’t write in the same florid style as Lovecraft, but the flavor is the same, while also delivering a picture of the prejudice and police brutality of the time, issues that we have happily overcome in our own century.

Check it out if you like Lovecraft, historical writing and want to meet an intriguing  writing talent.

 

 

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Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved

Back after a long absence….

This was an impulse pickup from the library. The Victorian detective novel is obviously a genre that seems like a challenge for your first novel, given the gigantic shadow that Sherlock casts over it, and I was curious to see how Thomas would shake things up. If he would add any twists or innovative ideas to the detective/sidekick pairing or the setting, thereby putting his own stamp on the concept.

The mystery is set in Victorian London, and is chiefly concerned with the increasing Jewish population of the city. This has led to conflicts and tensions on both sides as this historically-persecuted group attempt to find a new home where their ways rub the nerves of the solidly Christian majority. When a young Jewish man who looks very similar to the popular image of Jesus is found crucified, a detective with a close relationship to the Jewish community, Cyrus Barker, is called upon to investigate soon after he has hired his new assistant.

Sadly, I found very little of the sort. The protagonist, Thomas Llewelyn, is a down-on-his-luck Welsh lad who has spent time in both Oxford College and prison, and it is this odd history that recommends him as an assistant to Cyrus Barker, a well-known “enquiry agent.” This background doesn’t seem to add anything to Thomas’ identity, and indeed his personality isn’t well fleshed-out, though his backstory is solid. If the book had been about him as an assistant inheriting Barker’s practice, it would have been more interesting, in my mind. Unfortunately, this is not so, and we meet Mr. Barker. His backstory, why he always wears spectacles, and his eccentric methods and staff attempts to create a sense of mystery that falls flat. I understand that Mr. Thomas was attempting to follow the same path as Arthur Conan Doyle in gradually uncovering the character of their detective, but there just isn’t much there there once the story is told.

Barker is as unfailingly omnipotent as Holmes, but he doesn’t seem to have the same flashes of personality, instead depending on quirk to fill in the blanks. He has a vast and already settled network of contacts (and in fact a passage of Doyle’s regarding Moriarty’s spiderweb of influence is paraphrased by Barker) so that we’re along for the ride, but never encounter something or someone new or different without Barker’s presence, so that there’s no sense of discovery. Investigating the mystery itself seems to consist of talking to the chief suspects and little else, and the reveal of the killer, as well as his motive, is pretty anticlimactic. I got the sense that Will Thomas more wanted to display his skill at creating a picture of the time and people who might have existed in it than he did in making an engaging mystery. Indeed, there is an entire chapter dedicated to Llewelyn’s time working in a rabbi’s house over Passover which could easily have been snipped out, given that it did not advance the plot at all.

I will add a caveat here: many of the issues I had with the story can be easily forgiven because of the book’s place as the first of an apparently popular series. Finding your voice as a writer is no easy task (which I well know as someone who hasn’t discovered his own) and Thomas certainly has the skill to keep it going. If you read Some Danger Involved and don’t care for it (as I didn’t) then give the next one a try (as I will). It may grow on you.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Sherlock Holmes has of course left an indelible mark on culture in the West. There are video games, TV shows, movies, and a horde of books that have dissected every facet of the stories by Conan Doyle. The original books have been reprinted a multitude of times, and a lot of authors have taken the opportunity to write their own additions to the Holmes universe, whether in the form of new mysteries or with a twist, as in  Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald and Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which featured Holmes more well-known enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The Italian Secretary doesn’t have any such alterations; it’s a straight mystery written in Doyle’s style (and therein lies the problem; more on that later). The story itself is set in the town of Edinburgh, and features mysterious doings at the Holy Palace of Holyrood. Deaths have been reported, and a mysterious note has summoned Holmes himself to investigate a crime that, it is suggested, may threaten the Queen herself.

The Holmes stories themselves are fun to read, but in my opinion their great flaw is the omnipotence of the Great Detective as far as allowing people to solve the crime themselves. He picks up on every clue, knows the name of everything and everyone he encounters, and has a massively wide array of skills. Those are staples of the series, but they make reading the old stories slightly annoying in my eyes,  writing a new mystery difficult, and reading one even more so. There’s little suspense or sense of danger to the main character obviously either, but if the surrounding people are well written that doesn’t matter.

That is in effect here, as Carr’s Holmes is always on top of the game and rarely puzzled by anything he encounters. He gathers information from everywhere, bringing out ideas and facts from the barest evidence. Again, I understand that it’s a tradition of the mysteries, but it can be grating at times. Mycroft Holmes shows up as well, but has little impact on the events apart from being the impetus for his brother’s involvement in the following investigation.

The story itself is an odd hodgepodge of ideas, mixing cruel noblemen, Scottish Nationalism, mysterious deaths, and the possibility of supernatural forces at work (which in itself is a dubious idea in Sherlock’s world, given his firm adherence to practicality and logic). The death of David Rizzio, a real murder that contributed to the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a central theme, and I would be willing to bet that the idea of using the assassination was in place first as a subject of the book and Carr built the Holmes mystery around it.

Caleb Carr is a good writer, there’s no denying that; his previous books were entertaining and vivid. It makes me wonder if his writing is stronger when using characters he has created or fleshed out himself as opposed to those who have been stamped so firmly into their places by many previous hands, including the original creator.

If you enjoy Carr’s writing or the Sherlock mysteries, by all means give The Italian Secretary a read, and I hope you enjoy it more than I did. The Holmes stories are an acquired taste, and it’s possible I haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps I’ll try this one again some day.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

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Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys by Candace Savage

It’s always fun when you can discover an interesting subject in a book found by random at a yard sale. These hidden treasures are sometimes more valuable than a book from a store or as a gift, because you are basically getting the luck of the draw.

A recent outing rewarded the trip with a short but fascinating book about one of the most common but iconic animals: the crow. It’s an in-depth examination of the discovery that they have surprising intelligence and social skills. Their familiar place as messengers and emissaries of dark forces in stories and legends are no surprise when a clever brain is added to their shadowy feathers and diet of carrion.

Candace Savage is both educational and engaging in this book, detailing stories and experiments performed by scientists who study these birds. Crows have been documented to both perform problem-solving and use/create tools to get food, a behavior that was previously only seen in primates and dolphins. In addition, the crows demonstrate the ability to learn from each other by copying a technique that they observed another bird using to eat.

The social patterns and relationships of the birds are likewise analyzed, with the discovery that some demonstrated bonds that make no sense outside of some type of family attachment-grown birds that hang around the nest or come back months after they’re grown, bringing food and caring for the young ones.

Another fascinating area is the communication between birds. The crows are reported to each have their own calls and borrow noises from new acquaintances, as in the case of a couple of ravens who were given a new neighbor. At first the twosome ignored the newcomer, until the newbie learned to use the specific notes the other two sang. Once these were used, they accepted the new crow into their tiny flock.

Interspersed with the scientific data are various stories and legends about the crow, rook and raven, from a wide variety of cultures. All of them accord the black bird a place as a clever being, such as Huginn and Muninn, spies and messangers of Odin, lord of the Norse pantheon.

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys is not a long book; only about 105 pages. But it is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts about these ubiquitous yet uncommonly-fascinating birds that we see every day. I would recommend it to anyone interested in animal intelligence, birds, or just nature in general. I can guarantee that you will learn something new about the members of the Corvus family.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

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The Making of the Prefident 1789 by Marvin Kitman

I’ve already written a review of Kitman’s other book, George Washington’s Expense Account, and I said then I was gonna write this one up as well. I’ve enjoyed both of these books a great deal, both for the depth of historical detail and the breezy tone in which it educates the reader. Incidentally, that’s not an error in the title-Kitman says that in the past that’s how they spelled President, so that’s how he did it, and so then shall I.

The book details the path by which George Washington ascended to the White House. Born a poor boy with rich neighbors, he was apparently a meticulous study of math. He became a surveyor, buying land with the money he earned.  After his marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the colonies, he entered politics as a rich land & slaveowner who served in the Virgina House of Burgesses, where he did exactly nothing. His military career as a major in the Virgina militia started with a lost battle against the French & Indians, which resulted in the creation of  Fort Necessity, which was placed in the middle of a valley during a pouring rainstorm.

This uniform came in handy later when the Continental Congress was busy deciding who should be their commander in chief against the British. He wore it every day (and evidently had a real taste for dressing well). During the discussions, he wined and dined with many of the power players of the day, some of whom would later have positions in his administration. He also had a great love of dancing, sometimes for hours, with the wives of his hosts.

After much politicking and the promise to serve without pay, Washington was unanimously chosen as commander over John Hancock. Kitman records that Washington was not a natural leader and had some difficulty inspiring his men (not helped by Congress’ slowness in paying). The book has an engaging battle-by-battle discussion of each of the battles Washington commanded. His military career as leader of the colonial troops was not the best-he had many more defeats than victories, which was not due entirely to his own skill.

Washington is generally seen as a model Prefident, a man without scandal or sin. The man was generally loved in his time and is in ours, enjoying overwhelming adoration from the people past and present, ranging from a drastic uptick in “George” as a baby’s name to poems and the suggestion of “His Excellency” as title. Kitman does an amusing job of painting in the shades of our first Prefident. For example, he goes into detail about the pleasures of the day that George would have enjoyed. Washington, as did many men of the day, drank a LOT. An average day’s alcohol consumption in Philadelphia is recorded as “cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner, punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punch bowls big enough for a goose to swim in.” During the 178 election, his agents supplied booze to 391 voters: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, 2 gallons of cider royal.

There were also the suggestions of many affairs Washington had with both notable ladies of the time, bolstered by their own letters about him.  A few names of possible paramours are Kitty Greene, Sally Fairfax, Eliza Powel and many others. While there’s no direct evidence of any dalliances between them and Washington, Kitman offers a lot of educated conjecture and correspondence to support his theories.

Kitman does an excellent and in-depth examination of Washington’s early life, military & election campaign, as well as the schemes and tricks apparently used to gain him the Prefidency, all without losing his respect for Washington or suggesting he was the wrong man for the biggest job in the world.  He quotes and uses a massive amount of documents for this book, and the fun tone of his storytelling doesn’t diminish the hard facts he brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention the foreword by John Cleese? That’s just the topping on the delicious historical cake.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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In The Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton

Growing up as I did just down the road from Gettysburg, I’m well aware of the deep impact and fascination that history can hold for people. However, certain events seem to become rooted in an unchanging mythological shorthand in our minds by the media and society which aren’t changed unless we make an explicit effort to learn more about them: Columbus discovering the New World. The shootout in the O.K. Corral. The Salem Witch Trials.

Common lore that we all “know” says that women were burned at the stake for deals with the devil, that the accused witches were all women, and that it was solely confined to Salem. The first part is totally wrong: no one was burned in Salem. Twenty-four people died: nineteen by hanging, one by pressing under large rocks, and five died in prison. Eight of those who died were men. The accused ranged from a 75-yr-old woman to a little girl of 4, and numbered powerful and influential people among their number as well as the “usual suspects” of old women who had quarreled with their neighbors. And there were accusations in other towns besides Salem such as Gloucester and Salisbury, and even a group of them in Connecticut.

The main question of the trials has obviously been not whether the suspects were true witches, but why the accusations were made, and why were they believed and pursued with such fervor. Both of these questions have been meat for many scholars and historians, and the explanations have ranged from a need for attention by the largely young, female ranks of the accusers (a group who were near the very bottom of the Puritan social ladder) to hallucinations brought on by fungus in their rye bread. The whole truth behind their motives and what actually happened will never be known, but an intriguing theory is presented by Mary Beth Norton in her book In The Devil’s Snare.

In it, she examines not just the pattern of the “attacks”, but also the legal proceedings and courtroom drama that accompanied them,  the aftermath of the flurry of executions, but also the larger picture of the area and the way it may have contributed and influenced the entire incident. Specifically, she contends that the outbreak of hostility and attacks by local Native Americans and French trappers could have left a psychological scar on the minds of the people of Salem, making the suggestion of an assault by unseen malevolent enemies that much more believable.

It was a time of trouble and discontent. King Phillip’s War & King Williams’s War had meant that the settlers had endured nearly two decades of battle and harassment by an enemy they saw as being inhuman monsters. Lack of a newspaper meant that information about attacks traveled by infrequent letters or more commonly by word of mouth, with some gory embellishment undoubtedly thrown in to spice things up. Most of the accusers in the trials had either lived on the frontier before war touched the area, or had relatives who had lived or died there. Likewise, many of the judges and overseers of the trials had a connection to those armed conflicts, and were ready to accept supernatural aid as a reason for the brutal attacks and victories of their enemies.

Norton suggests that these attacks and the reports of others created a kind of hysteria in the accusers, causing them to lash out at those they had heard disparaged by others or with their own connection to attacks. Many of the complaints mention the presence of a “black” man presiding over evil ceremonies, a word commonly used during that time and place to refer to Native Americans. Indeed, the famous writer and clergyman Cotton Mather himself stated that the witches called Satan the “Black Man”, and “they generally say he resembles an Indian.”

Reports of skirmishes and the political fallout caused by these incidents, as well as the martial description of  ghostly covens by the accusers and confessors reinforce this idea, and Norton has done an exhaustive job of researching and collecting contemporary accounts of the events leading up to, during, and the sudden collapse of the whirlwind of activity during the events in Salem. More impressively, she presents all of this information in a readable, detailed voice that’s both enjoyable and solidly clinical in the best way.

She offers a plausible and fascinating explanation for the actions of all involved. It doesn’t excuse or condone the death and misery caused by the accusers and judges, but the psychological pressure and turmoil present in the area, as well as the religious teachings of their leaders and their desire to make their home into a paradise makes the behavior of all involved much more understandable.

History can be endlessly fascinating if handled properly, and brain-killingly dry if the writer doesn’t have the needed talent or passion. Norton has both, and I’d happily hand this book to anyone interested in American history in general or Salem in particular.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

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