Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE RUNAWAYS by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

RunawaysImage © Zilpha Keatley Snyder, illustration by Daniel O’Leary.

At my age there are very few authors I started reading as a child who are still around. Snyder’s first book for young readers was published in 1964 when I was 13, her most recent came out in 2011. I own and have enjoyed most of them, this 1999 title is one I found recently.

Dani and her mother Linda are stuck in the small, poor desert town of Rattler Springs, Nevada in 1951, having been lured there by an inheritance that turned out to be essentially worthless land. Dani hates it and is determined to run away back to the northern California coast town where they used to live as soon as she can raise the bus fare. There are lots of complications, though, a primary one being Stormy, a learning disabled boy she’s befriended who lives with a much worse mother nearby and who wants to come with her. A husband and wife team of geologists come to town and offer to rent Linda’s property, giving them a real chance to get ahead of their debts, and their daughter Pixie soon joins Dani and Stormy in their runaway plans. Turns out her parents mostly ignore her, and she’s all for the adventure. Bully Ronnie Grabler does all he can to ruin their chances, and lots of other problems arise, but Dani is determined to make a break for it, especially after Stormy is badly beaten by his own mother.

Like all of Snyder’s books, this one has great characters and human insight and an engaging storyline. Recommended.

Rereading: I WILL FEAR NO EVIL by Robert Heinlein

IWFNEHeinlein

Image © estate of Robert Heinlein.

I read this long novel twice, first as serialized in GALAXY magazine, later in this paperback version. I was drawn back to it after reading the second half of the new Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson Jr. I found it pretty odd when I first read it. Quite a good read, but different from other Heinlein books. I remember thinking it was the work of an old man, being the story of Johann Smith, a very old man with many health problems but lots of money to hire the best doctors to keep him alive. A man essentially a prisoner in his own home left to argue with his old friend and lawyer Jake Solomon, and fantasize about his very beautiful and sexy secretary Eunice Branca.

Things turn strange when Johann decides to try a risky operation transplanting his brain into a new young body. Johann has a rare blood type limiting the donor possibilities, but plenty of money is offered and a list of possible donors grows. Abruptly with chapter five, everything changes, as Johann finds himself waking up gradually from the transplant surgery, not remembering how it happened. He’s sedated and restrained, but as he grows stronger he discovers something he hadn’t expected: the donor body is female. More shocks follow when it turns out it’s that of his secretary, Eunice. Johann is devastated, as he cared deeply for Eunice, but something even stranger helps him: Eunice’s spirit or essence begins speaking to him inside his head. It seems they’re going to share her body and his mind with Eunice as an unseen partner, helping him learn to be female with all that entails, from social behavior to sex.

There are interesting twists, as his granddaughters sue, claiming he can’t prove he’s who he says he is. Eunice’s husband gets involved in the story and the life of the new combined person, as do her doctor, nurse, and her four bodyguards. But most of the remaining pages are filled with internal dialogue between Johann (now Joan) and Eunice on every possible topic from their two lives and divergent experiences, philosophies and desires. The book does get bogged down by the sheer amount of this, and it often slows the story to a crawl, though most of what Heinlein has to say is interesting. I did get tired of the back and forth sex talk, though, there’s too much of that.

I remember reading at the time the book came out that Heinlein was very ill, and I always thought that must have affected the writing. Certainly there’s lots of preoccupation with illness. But in the Patterson bio I learned it was only after he had turned this manuscript in to his editor that he fell ill, and remained so for long enough that he wasn’t able to do his usual copy editing of the galleys. Heinlein’s publishers always seemed to feel his books were too long, and he normally did a lot of cutting, but did not trust others to do it, so the final contract for this book stipulated it would be published as written, no cutting. That’s enlightening, and I can see where cutting might well have helped the story.

But there are plenty of details that must come from Heinlein’s own life and experiences that would have been cut, and for that reason I’m glad to have it all here. And this book was the beginning of Heinlein’s drift away from the usual tropes of science fiction to concentrate on what interested him most: people and the things they cared most about like sex, death, and money. There are still some fine ideas in the book, but the characters and their lives are the real focus.

I WILL FEAR NO EVIL is not a Heinlein book I would give someone to try if they hadn’t read much by him yet, but it’s well worth reading all the same.

And Then I Read: ROBERT A HEINLEIN Volume 2

RAHVol2Image © William H. Patterson, Jr., art by Donato.

In many ways it’s impossible to review this 671-page biography, which is only the second half. But in one way, it’s easy: are you a fan of science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein? Are you interested in learning about his life? Then this two-volume tome is essential reading, and really the only accurate way to date to find out what the man and his life were all about. Heinlein is one of my favorite writers, and his writing is full of the personality, ideas and ideals of the man himself, so I found reading about him almost as fascinating has his work.

One thing that kept surprising me was how many health problems the man endured and struggled with, beginning before his writing career when he developed TB in the Navy, something that left him forever vulnerable to infections and viruses. After nearly every public appearance he got sick, but that didn’t stop him, particularly when he had a cause, like the series of blood drives he sponsored at conventions. The one time I saw Heinlein in person was at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. That was the beginning of his blood drives that did much to raise awareness and increase donation.

This book could only have been written after the passing of both Heinlein and his wife Virginia. He never liked analyzing his own work, and was very suspicious of others who did. He had a long-running feud with writher Alexei Panshin over the latter’s book and articles about Heinlein’s work. Another surprisingly antagonistic relationship was with early SF fan and would-be agent Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry clearly loved Heinlein’s work, and thought it should be spread more widely, but his method of doing that was highly unethical: representing himself as Heinlein’s agent to foreign publishers and movie companies without any permission, and making sales that Heinlein knew nothing about!

I first discovered Heinlein when I was a teenager, and I devoured his books for young readers. Soon after I began reading his more adult material in books and magazines. He seemed so impressive and successful, it was surprising to me to learn that he wasn’t financially secure until his novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” became a surprise paperback best-seller in the late 1960s, and kept on selling well for years. I think it’s probably his best novel, and I remember feeling gratified when the world finally caught on.

There are many more things I could say, but the bottom line is, if you’re a fan, you’ll want to read these. Don’t miss out.

And Then I Read: COMIC BOOK PEOPLE by Jackie Estrada

ComicBookPeopleFCImages © Jackie Estrada.

Here’s a book I backed on Kickstarter which arrived recently, and it’s a gem. Jackie Estrada has been involved in the San Diego Comic Con from its beginning in 1970, and she was wise enough to have a camera with her. This large book is her photo album from the first two decades, and it’s full of terrific photos. Though I got into comics in 1977, I didn’t start attending the San Diego Con until 1993, so this book allowed me to visit the show through Jackie’s eyes and words, and see so many of the people I met in the business as they enjoyed the show during those years. Jackie’s comments are mix of identifying people and why they’re known with personal memories of them and the time and place. It really is like looking through a photo album with the author at your side.

ComicBookPeoplePageWhile the vast majority of people shown are from the comics and comic strips world, there are also chapters on famous figures from science fiction, movies and TV. San Diego always presented a mix, and Jackie includes photos from a few other shows, as on this page featuring one of my favorite writers, Robert Heinlein. (And rest assured it looks much better than this scan!) It was interesting to learn that Jackie and I had both been at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City where he was the guest of honor, but how about that photo of him in a Hawaiian shirt doing a sketch?

In addition to mainstream comics writers and artists, there are photos of people from underground comics, independent or small press, and animation. There are comic strip creators, and cartoonists. There are behind the scenes folks like editors, publishers and journalists. And while most of the photos were taken in black in white, there is a nice section of color photos as well.

In short, if you’re interested in the people behind the comics and media you enjoy, you’ll love this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rereading: HIS LAST BOW by A. Conan Doyle

HisLastBow

Continuing my revisit to the entire Sherlock Holmes canon on my phone and iPad (first edition cover above). This book is relatively short, containing only seven stories, though the first, “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” was long enough to run in two parts in The Strand magazine. It’s a somewhat familiar idea with a man being lured to a remote estate in the country where a murder takes place, and the innocent visitor is under suspicion as the murderer, so he turns to Holmes to prove his innocence. One other character, local Police Inspector Baynes turns out to be nearly as clever and resourceful as Holmes himself, and the two of them race to the solution. Good reading.

In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” a landlord comes to Holmes with complaints about a very mysterious lodger who has not been seen in person since moving in, and seems to have odd habits and cryptic communications in note form. Holmes takes the case, discovering that someone is communicating with the lodger through newspaper ads and signals from a nearby house. A sinister plot is uncovered, and some exciting action ensues.

“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” is both a cracking good mystery and a spy thriller, in fact perhaps the first such story ever. Stolen government weapons plans, a murdered body at a very unlikely place, Holmes and Watson breaking and entering, even Mycroft Holmes is involved. Great reading.

“The Adventure of the Dying Detective” has Holmes at death’s door, and very reluctant to allow Dr. Watson to treat him. Holmes says he his highly contagious and begs Watson to bring a specialist on rare infections to see him in his rooms. The man is question is clearly a shady character who is quite delighted to have Holmes sick and perhaps dying. He comes to gloat. Fine reading.

“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” has a somewhat gullible rich English woman disappearing in Europe, suspected of abduction or foul play. Holmes and Watson head to the continent to investigate and are soon on the trail of a suspicious bearded man, but the final solution takes them back to London again. Another enjoyable story.

“The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” brings Holmes to the moors of Cornwall, where a social evening of card playing has turned bizarre, leaving two men insane and a woman dead. Holmes suspects a rare poison is involved, and even puts his own life at risk with it during the investigation. A nicely creepy mystery.

“His Last Bow,” the final and title story is the only one in the collection I didn’t care for. It’s in third person, and is another spy story, not really a mystery at all. Holmes and Watson appear well into the narrative, Watson mostly off-scene, and while this adventure brings Holmes’ work to the brink of World War One, it does so in a way that seems sad and melancholy, as if the world Holmes knew and relished for decades has faded away, as has Holmes, only coming out of retirement for this last adventure.

In all, the collection is well worth reading and recommended.