classic literature

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

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A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Philip K. Dick Debut

OK, we’ve all seen Blade Runner.  Most of us have also watched the sequel… I remember liking it when I watched it.  The thing is that the movie, in my mind, is more of a collection of sensations, generating the same kind of feeling that noir film of the thirties did, than something I analyze as a piece of science fiction.

Now, I’ve read every major SF writer out there, in depth and in detail… except for Philip K. Dick.  Why?  I’m not sure.  I’ve had the Library of America PKD collection in my shopping cart for about a decade, but it always seems to get bumped out by something newer and shinier.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

But on my birthday a year ago, a friend gifted me A Maze of Death, one of his novels.

Let’s be clear, this book is not the conventional door into Dick.  That would probably be the novella that engendered Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Additionally, this is a dark book, whose central theme–as foreshadowed by the title–is the human propensity to cause other people’s deaths.

So what did I think?

This boy has potential.  If even one of his minor works is so intriguing, I can’t help but think that his classics must be amazing indeed.

So let’s have a look at this one.  Without being overly spoilery, this one has three separate layers of reality all transpiring concurrently, of which one, in what, from what I’ve read online, is a typical display of Dick’s sense of humor, is only evident in the chapter list.

The book is interesting more on an intellectual level than as a typical literary enterprise.  The characters are, to put it mildly, unlikable, and they die in mostly uninspiring ways.  Nevertheless, the reader is always kept engaged by the underlying mystery.

The style–perhaps intentionally, I won’t be able to judge fully until I read more of the man’s work–reminds me more of the work of the fifties than the seventies.  It’s reminiscent of A Case of Conscience, or even Mission of Gravity.

So, as a corporate boss might say, this is a good start.  I still need to get my act together and read the meat of his output in order to give my loyal readers a better picture.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own exploration of the human psyche is strongest in his novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

There are few experiences quite as disheartening as discovering that a genre you love had some growing pains.  Unfortunately, most things worth having suffered at some point, and science fiction, quite obviously, was not the exception.

The genres dark ages happened in the sixties and seventies.  Riding a wave of enthusiasm derived from the Pulp Era and the Golden Age, science fiction hit the days of hippies, pop culture and Vietnam with a resounding thud, and something called the New Wave.

Now, as someone who entered the genre in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn about this.  To me, science fiction was Clarke, Heinlein and especially Asimov, three men who dominated the field in 1987 or so, just as they did in the fifties.  To anyone joining then, it was as if the New Wave never happened.  It’s still kind of that way today, except that all of us recognize that New Wave sensibilities did give us one colossus of the genre, Dune, and another literary great, LeGuin.  Other than that, it has mostly been forgotten.

But the anthologies are still out there, places where one can see the atrocities perpetrated against the genre in all their unfortunate luridity.  Perhaps the greatest of the criminals against genre during the New Wave era was Judith Merril.  At the time a respected anthologist, her collections tend to be strings of empty stories that mainly paid homage to the times and have little lasting value.

Unfortunately, she was also quite prolific, and she compiled a lot of the era’s “Year’s Best” collections, so she’s the first anthologist you’re likely to encounter, and the one that will form your view.

The Best of Sci-Fi- 17 x Infinity - Edited by Groff Conklin

All of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying that when I picked up The Best of Sci-Fi 17 x Infinity, published in 1963, I was expecting more of the same.  Pop-minded crap where density of composition attempted to hide a lack of originality and ideas… boy was I mistaken.

This one actually covers much more ground than other anthos of the era, and includes stories by such colossi as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster.  And before you ask, these aren’t stories “considered” to be science fiction – these are straight SF yarns with no excuses given; cover the writer’s name, and you’d guess Golden Age Astounding.

When you add in more modern authors such as Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury Pohl and Sturgeon it becomes… well, quite simply, this was one of the best SF anthos I’ve ever read.  Perhaps not cutting edge by modern standards, it was a breeze to read… which is the way to know you’re enjoying something.

Favorite tale was probably Herbert’s, which was funny as hell and would probably cause a few interesting meltdowns if someone published it today… which is always a plus.

Track this one down and get a copy.  It’s probably only worth a couple of dollars at your friendly neighborhood used book store.  You’ll enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book – Timeless – was recently released.  You can check it out here.

For Those Who Like Extreme Science in their Science Fiction

Hal Clement - Penguin - Mission of Gravity

I’m on a bit of a science fiction classics binge, which is always an enjoyable place to be…  After not one but two issues of the old Astounding Stories, I moved on to Mission of Gravity, a novel which, fittingly enough, was published in Astounding in 1953.  Since then, it has appeared often in book form, and was even published by Penguin, which I have always found, albeit with a few exceptions, to be a harbinger of at least some literary merit.

This novel delivers a fascinating, if not particularly tense, tale of space exploration at the limits of known science, and takes place on a hugely massive planet spinning at a crazy rate, which does some very interesting things to the gravity.

The main characters are the inhabitants of that world, and it’s interesting to watch how they’ve adapted to the conditions prevalent on their planet and how they respond to the presence of human explorers who have a problem that they can’t solve themselves.  Making a scenario this alien believable is probably Clement’s strongest point in this book.

I’m also interested in the fact that the author doesn’t stop to explain the physics.  If you don’t know how to recognize the symptoms of high spin or the effects of high gravity, then you’ll miss a whole lot of this.  Perhaps the book was most interesting as an indictment of today’s more lenient and easier education systems.  Sixty years ago, authors assumed science knowledge that would cause a lot of genre readers to stumble and grumble today.  Ouch.

Anyhow, it does dive into science, so might not be everyone’s cup of tea in this slipstream and “soft science is just as respectable as hard science” day and age, but it’s certainly a shining example of the breed.  And unlike the character studies currently in vogue, I’ll actually remember this one in a few years’ time – that’s because SF is the literature of ideas, and the ideas in this one are actually kinda interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel, Timeless is a thriller about a journalist.  You can have a look at it here.

With Trimmed Edges

Astounding Stories August 1936

Last time, we looked at the January 1934 issue of Astounding Stories with an eye towards understanding what the transition between the old-time pulps and the Golden Age of Science Fiction actually looked like.

One of the hallmarks of the pulp age is, as its name suggests, the use of low-quality pulp paper with untrimmed edges.  The paper itself felt soft and of much better quality than, say the stuff used in 1970s paperbacks that turns brittle and brown (as opposed to the well-creamed-coffee color of the pulp stock), but there’s no arguing that the untrimmed edges give the publications a bit of an unfinished look.

In the two-and-a-half years between that issue and the other one I’ve recently read (August 1936 – pictured above), however, a major innovation occurred at Astounding: trimmed edges!  This complete break with pulp tradition makes less difference today than it probably did eighty-odd years ago on the newsstands.

Once more, I turned to the letters section, Brass Tacks, to see what reader reaction to the change had been.  As expected, the fans were enthusiastic with what they saw as a major advance, and the section also informed me that the change had happened only a few issues before the one I was holding.  But that wasn’t the only thing they talked about: the letters section had, by this time become a major concentration point for amateur literary critics.  The discussion of the merits of the various authors was quite heated… and the old argument about the pulp-style and Golden Age styles that we discussed last time was still alive and well.  Some of the readers were very vocal against the new, more literary and scientific style of story.

Interestingly, John W. Campbell, though not the editor, was already in evidence by this issue.  He wrote a science article about Mercury, apparently part of a series.  Also, this issue showed the return of two authors who’d been in the earlier edition: Nat Schachner and the great Jack WIlliamson.  Other famous names in this one were Murray Leinster and Stanley Weinbaum (who, the editor informed us, would no longer be appearing in Astounding – he’d died in December at the age of 33… and with an enviable body of work behind him).

With regards to the fiction itself, this one was a lucky buy, as it had the beginning of one serial (The Incredible Invasion – Leinster) and the end of another (The Cometeers – Williamson) which meant that I didn’t get stuck with the middle of anything which is always harder to draw conclusions from.  It was these two fragments plus the Schachner tale “The Return of the Murians” which stuck most in my mind.  There was nothing quite like the story “Colossus” which was the highlight of the January 1934 issue, but on the flip side, there were no real duds in this one either.

In general, we’ve definitely moved one step closer to the Golden Age here.  The style and names are almost all there, as are the trimmed edges.  It took one man’s vision to bring it all together… someday, I should probably read an early Campbell Astounding to see how it looks.  And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, Timeless, follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she investigates a mysterious author… only to run afoul of the very criminals the man writes about.  You can check it out here.

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

The Bookends of Doom

The Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

It’s been popular in the past couple of decades to attack The Chronicles of Narnia for its excessive use of Christian messaging.  This is jus one unfortunate side effect of a culture that politicizes everything in the most infantile of ways, meaning that whatever is on the “wrong” side of the political divide must be attacked.  Cue the Marching Morons obeying the dictates of their political-dogma-spewing overlords.

Even though I’m an atheist and should have been shocked (shocked, I tell you!!) at anything which hints at preaching, I decided to read the books anyway.  Why?  Various reasons.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been a kid in a time when good books were just good books and not symbols of protest, so all the later mud-slinging really made no impression on me.  Secondly, generations of children have loved these, and I thought it would be nice to see what all the fuss was about.

Thirdly, I remembered having read, at least partially, one or two of the books when I was a little too young to appreciate them, and wanted to complete that reading.

Most importantly, perhaps, I hate having important gaps in my reading.  By important, I mean books that have stood the test of time, not books that are faddish today – I won’t be running to buy any recent Hugo-award winners unless they are still beloved in twenty years’ time.  But Narnia?  Yes, a must read for anyone who with the maturity to leave political silliness aside.

So… How did they hold up?

In order to answer that question, I need to talk about the order in which the Narnia series was composed vs. the order in which it was meant to be read.  The first four books written (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) follow the adventures of two brothers and two sisters who initially discover the land of Narnia and have adventures there.  These are the solid core of the series and each is enjoyable and beautiful.

Is there Christian messaging in this core?  Yes, there is, but it’s pretty light, and any intelligent child, anywhere on the political / faith spectrum, will be the better for being exposed to it and getting to think about things.  Plus, they’ll enjoy these books enormously.

Then came The Horse and his Boy, which, in reading order, slots between Wardrobe and Caspian.  This one is a good little adventure as well, although it doesn’t really do much for the central story except to set up the final book.

The last two books to be written were where C.S. Lewis made his big mistake.  The Magician’s Nephew was written to be the first in the series in reading order, and The Last Battle, as its name indicates, was meant to close the series out.

These are the only ones that fall flat, for several reasons, but mostly because Lewis was attempting to make his message (and yes, it is a very traditional Christian message) obvious to everyone.  They are just there, in fact, for that reason, and the adventures are relegated to a secondary role–the books suffer for it.

Are these two unreadable?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  They just aren’t up to the spectacularly high level of the others.

I would recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first four (or five if you can’t get enough of it) books as written and ignore the rest.  And I recommend it to anyone at all.  If an atheist can enjoy it, so can you.

Just stay away from the last two books written.  They… don’t help.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fantasy novel The Malakiad is not a Christian novel. In fact, it offends every religion from ancient Greece onwards, and it offends atheists and the politically correct, as well.  In fact, if you are not offended by it, Gustavo will be extremely upset.  You can check it out here (ebook) and here (paperback).